My Steam Review tells me I touched 122 GAMES IN 2023*, so to make sense of it all I’m breaking down my highlights of the year and seeing what they tell me about myself. And finally, we’ll look at what my contributions were to the field.
(*Not all of these came out in 2023 but I played them in 2023)
Let’s dive in:
Top 10 games played
Lords of the Fallen
70 hours in two months! This soulslike has made a significant impact on me, but more on that later. And to think I openly mocked the game and its excessive use of proper nouns before it came out! But it hooked me with its good looks, and soon I was smitten. Here’s why:
- Level design: I love a game world that doesn’t hold my hand and point me where to go next. But then the level design needs to be REALLY good and intuitive to avoid getting lost. Luckily this is the case, and I can navigate Mournstead front to back from memory. Feels great.
- Fluidity of combat: Mastering a style of combat in a soulslike is extremely satisfying, but here you’re never locked into one style. You can switch between single and dual wielding combat even in the middle of a combo, and can also switch between ranged weapons and magic kind of on the fly.
- Dual worlds: The game’s gimmick is that you have a lamp that at any time can teleport you to another dimension that co-exists with the normal world. But it’s a one-way trip; to get back you need to find certain portals in the world. Coupled with a rising threat meter that spawns more and more enemies the longer you are in there, it creates moments of incredible tension and fantastic close calls, as well as interesting platforming puzzles.
- Art style: It’s a gorgeous game, and somehow soulslikes always go the extra mile with environmental design, armor design, monster design, everything is just top notch. It took a while for the team to optimize it to run well post-launch, but it’s real smoooth now.
- Peace of mind: It doesn’t tell you this, but the game saves your progress all the time. And I believe that is rare for a soulslike. I noticed after frequent child-related interruptions and a few crashes that I would always be returned to the exact place that I left my character in, with all XP etc intact, even if I hadn’t used a save point. That’s perfect.
Side note: it’s funny how I identify as a soulslike fan now without having ever played a FromSoft game. Maybe Elden Ring is next…
I played a lot of small games this year before falling into this souls-shaped hole for 70 hours, and I struggled to complete those, even 3-5 hour ones. I chalked it up to just not being able to focus anymore as a new parent, but Lords of the Fallen disproved that theory, and there are 3 reasons why:
- I gotta be honest when a game doesn’t fully grab me
This may sound obvious, but as a game developer I have a broad taste and I will check out any artistically interesting game, but most of them I don’t enjoy enough to want to play them all the way through. But still I try, out of respect, and out of obligation of having spent money on it I guess. I should be honest and stop doing that.
- I’m 10x more likely to finish a game if I can play it with the sound off while other things are going on in the room
There is only so much attention you can spend as a new parent, so I’ve started to really value games that have clear and repeatable mechanics and understated narratives, so that I don’t need to sit alone quietly and in total focus to get something out of them.
- I GOTTA stop buying too many games
Following the previous point, I used to hoard games I wanted to play when they came out. Now I know a Steam sale is never far away, so I will delay until I actually have time to play those games I want to buy.
Altogether these realizations have really improved how I consume games now.
Okay, moving on! I promise I’ll move through these next ones quicker!
I have to mention Mortal Shell next as it was the first proper soulslike I played, and it hooked me on the genre. It’s much shorter than a regular soulslike, which was perfect for me at the time. It really luxuriates in that grimdark vibe, and oof, controlling that character had so much weight and groundedness to it, it’s my gold standard for character controllers in this genre.
It feels like that was the start of a journey that I went on a long time ago, BUT IT WAS THIS YEAR, STILL. I picked that game up in January. What a year.
It made me a believer (in being someone who gets killed over and over by basic enemies like a pathetic worm until he get gud and starts destroying fools with a dual-wield flaming broadsword kit that he spent hours perfecting).
This is a great follow-up to my time with Lords of the Fallen. It’s a unique blend of soulslike and a big budget narrative action game. I loved the first one, but holy moly they really outdid themselves this time. The first planet you visit after the intro is like they glued together 5 or 6 Uncharted-scale levels into a semi-open-world, and it is all revealed to you bit by bit, and feels great to traverse and look at, packed with secrets; ugh. I wish I could make a game as good as this game’s first area.
I really want to get better at level design and design an intricate space like this. The way all the areas loop back on themselves is so satisfying. And they succeed where Ubisoft often fails: the world is dense with secrets and side activities, but they let you just explore and find them organically.
Alan Wake 2
Man, AW2 and I almost didn’t make it. Which is UNTHINKABLE for me as a Remedy fan. I was looking forward to this one for a long time, and I had intended to clear my backlog before it hit, but then Lords of the Fallen happened, and AW2 sort of got left by the wayside. An outrage! But it was mainly because it wasn’t available on the Steam Deck.
I play most of my games on the Steam Deck. Like, 86% of my playtime (thanks Steam Review). But even if AW2 was on Steam, the Deck could not have handled it. My PC couldn’t even handle it! So I bought a new one (not only because of AW2, though), but again, as a new parent I’m not nearly able to spend as much time behind it as I used to, so this game just wasn’t getting played. I tried streaming it to my Deck, which technically worked, but was such a hassle that I stopped.
But when my kid finally started sleeping better, and I finished LotF, I came back to it, and finally it clicked. I played it front to back and I loved it. Not as much as I loved Control, but enough to feel like all is right in the world again. Sorry I snoozed on you, Alan.
When I was playing this late at night with the lights off, there was a jumpscare while trying to open some door, and right then something fell on the floor in our real-life attic. A+ hairs raised would freak out over again.
Shining example of what an indie game can and should be. It takes the wall climbing we all know from games like Uncharted, innovates on the mechanics to make them feel complex and tactile, and spins a 4-5 hour game out of it with a really stunning art style. What more could you want. GMTK has a great video explaining this much more in-depth.
What did I get out of it?
Building a whole game around great traversal mechanics, without any dialogue but just pretty vistas to look at, is a totally valid design choice.
From the moment I saw the announcement trailer, I knew this was a game made for me. Ghibli art style? A mysterious semi-open-world valley I can ride my bike across? Weird characters to interview? A little camera to capture the beauty of the world for my journal? A heartfelt story about legacy and learning to say goodbye? Yes please nomnom.
What did I get out of it?
My ultimate goal in gamedev is to make you feel like you’re there in the game world. Season comes closest to replicating that feeling. Something about the way it engages your senses – recording little sounds, framing interesting details with your camera, reflecting on how it makes you feel in the journal – every part of this game is designed to make you believe in this make-believe place. I love that.
A great companion piece to Season. Stunning watercolor artwork brings to life the childhood memories of the main character and the summer she spent with her grandma in the French countryside. An endearing little adventure game.
It’s amazing how the team applied watercolor drawings to 3D geometry to create a sort of shoebox diorama look. I really gotta teach myself to work with 3D more. I could see this technique eventually becoming my house style.
I hadn’t played the original but I heard so many good things, so I tried it and it captivated me. Brilliant and insane creativity bottled in a fun 3D platformer. Works especially well when viewed in tandem with the documentary about its making (which I think is even longer than the game itself…)
Immense respect for the creativity and skill of this team. They went through hell to make it, but the result is stunning at every turn.
What a surprise, what a game. A great rhythmn-based 3D platformer/brawler with, again, just a stunning art style. It’s 3D but it looks 2D, and like, it POPS off the screen. Really fun.
I think this game was trying to teach me the same lesson as Lords of the Fallen did, but I just wasn’t ready to receive it yet.
Guardians of the Galaxy
This game was a total surprise. I picked it up on sale for like 3 bucks, and wow I was blown away by how gorgeous it is, how fun to play, and how funny the writing is. Perfectly captures the guardians’ vibe, and I don’t think I ever spent more than five minutes not hearing some kind of banter between the team members. I don’t know how they pulled it off, but it’s a perfect rollercoaster ride of a game. And long too, considering! Highly recommended.
Humor adds so much to the joy of experiencing a game, even if it tackles serious and sometimes dark subject matter. I’ve always written my narratives with some levity in them, and I shouldn’t forget to keep doing that. This was a good reminder.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
It’s so much fun steering little bumbling Luigi through the hotel. I really enjoyed the almost imsim-like first half with all the nooks and crannies filled with secrets and puzzles, but then they ran out of ideas for interconnected floors I guess? And we get standalone “oh this one’s a movie studio” or “hey it’s a medieval dungeon!” floors and they just lost me there.
Dragonball Z Kakarot
I guess I also played this a ton?? I’m not super into fighting games, but this one had enough open world RPG narrative that I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this childhood nostalgia trap. Love DBZ.
The MOST AMAZING scifi visual identity that I’ve seen in a long time. Great promise and premise, sadly the stealth gameplay just didn’t hold up for me.
Proof that horror can also look cute and stylish while still getting under your skin. See also: Fear The Spotlight.
A refreshing splash of color and charm with very competent and fun Batman-like fighting mechanics. The story had me chuckling along and the art style is *chef’s kiss*.
Deliver Us Mars
A really captivating and well-acted scifi coming-of-age story. Often felt like ‘Tomb Raider in space’. Tugged at my heartstrings here and there.
A stunning Unreal 5 showcase and an entertaining scifi walking sim. Short and sweet and just unbelievable to look at, and that’s enough.
El Paso Elsewhere
Max Payne is back baby! Oh wait this isn’t Max, it’s an even more brooding guy who’s hunting his vampire ex girlfriend? Well shit the bullettime shootdodges are just as good! A bit too long, though.
This Bed We Made
I’ve been fascinated by hotels since probably that one level in Hitman 2 (the original), but they never let you really do hotel stuff. This game, in which you play as a maid, finally strikes the right balance between snooping through a creepy stranger’s suitcase to solve a mystery, and scrubbing stains from their toilet by flicking the analog stick around methodically. Great voiceacting, too. And a masterclass in offering lots of little choices that you don’t realize have big repercussions to the outcome of the story.
Under The Waves
Closing out the list is the most chill game of them all. Well, as long as the story isn’t getting in your way. You’re basically an underwater maintenance man. Get up, make coffee, get in your tiny submarine, cruise along the ocean floor cleaning up plastic and shipwrecks, blast oil spills with lasers, photograph wildlife, find stickers and blueprints, and occasionally have, uh, extended mental breakdowns about your deceased daughter that seems to be following you around in spirit form.
Games worked on
2023 was not a great year for gamedev. I mean, I did my best, but between an ongoing UX contract all year, and a kid, there wasn’t much time left. And as you can tell from the above, I preferred to spend that time playing games instead of making them. Still, I didn’t exactly slack off on that front.
Project Art Thief
This big project remained a strong focus this year. I continued work on the prototype that the Creative Industries Fund financed towards the end of 2022, and during INDIGO I pitched it to several publishers including Ubisoft. Their enthusiasm was motivating, but in the end no deal was reached, and without help I wouldn’t be able to tackle this project, so I decided to leave it be until after the UX contract is finished.
After playing all those soulslikes, I felt the urge to put my own spin on it. Or rather, it’s more of a Green-Knight-like. I’m very excited about the narrative and the visual style, we’ll see if I find time to finish this one in 2024.
Dutch audiovisual institute Beeld & Geluid asked me for the project files and history of the games I’ve made, in order to archive it for posterity in the Dutch games canon. So I spent some time collecting old projects and contextualizing them. The first batch of 8 games is now in their hands, and I’m curious to see what they’ll make of it.
Because I had to touch lots of old projects, I couldn’t resist polishing some of them up. I ported Minimal Raider to the new Unity URP rendering pipeline, and I’ve completed some big lingering improvements to Coyote, both of which I intend to release on Steam one they’re finished.
Beyond that I’m not doing any predictions or setting any goals for 2024, as the year is just too unpredictable. But I miss releasing something, so I’ll try to do something about that at least.
What were your favorite games of last year? And which games that you missed are you excited to try in the new year?