2023 hit me like a truck, in good and not-so-good ways. A lot of good things, especially PAX West in the big/new/shiny building with many more indie spotlights than in previous years – were a welcome departure from the usual-becoming-overwhelming status quo of standing in lines for two or three hours. I do miss my routine of pre-ordering the new Assassin’s Creed game on Amazon just to get the free shirt at the booth and then canceling the order once I got home. But! The most interesting and earnest people are way more approachable in this format, and I got to pick more brains than usual! 

I also played many games, big and small, that truly touched and amazed me. In no particular order, I’d like to talk about them!

7. Season: A Letter to the Future

This is one I wish I had talked about more (or written about at all) when I played it. I realized my feelings about this game and the way it resonated with me was sensitive to articulation. Season is reassuring, like listening to someone tell a story while half-asleep in the car. Even its melancholic moments are calm and beautiful. The world itself is vibrant and soft, like an old Zelda game. 

You play as Estelle, a young woman traveling the vast valley below her isolated town to document as much as possible before a flood washes away the memories of everyone calling it home. It wasn’t the most solid premise, but it’s all the minutiae within the story that put Season on my list of favorites. It’s a game about memory that gives you the space to decide whether it’s something to be cherished despite the inevitable pain, or if it’s a burden easily sacrificed. It’s part absolution, part witness. It’s about a parking lot graveyard full of eternally sleeping soldiers, it’s about a family packing up their entire life to escape the flood desperate to hold on to the memory of a dead father and husband, it’s about a reclusive and cynical artist who says things like “when a dream crawls back out of your throat, it hurts” and “I thought if I stood outside his door long enough in the rain, that god would let me inside.” 

The way you document the world around you is by recording sounds, writing down passages, drawing what you see, and taking photographs. You collect a pile of these captured moments and decide what to preserve in a scrapbook, which becomes what is passed along to the future. After the flood, after the reset. 

I consider myself a photographer, at least some of the time. My grandfather, who I never really got to know and whose life (except for a couple of small boxes) scattered to the wind after he died, he was also a photographer, at least some of the time. I got my first polaroid camera from him, but I never got to see any of his photos as an adult and then at some point they were lost. I was only ever told that he captured a lot of his town, the mountains, his family, everything before it started changing (as things inevitably do) and before his stroke, before we got estranged and so on. I like to think maybe we’re sort of connected every time I take one of my little pictures, past to present. 

Alongside the beauty and meditative exploration and the touching story is a deeply evocative warmth of a shared art, the value of being an observer as well as a participant, before it all gets washed away.

6. Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories

I’ll admit, I was immediately drawn to Melon Journey because of its nostalgic look, that pixelated cutesy kind of game that reminded me of sitting on my bed for hours the summer before middle school playing Ham-Ham Heartbreak with the window open and the breeze coming in all afternoon.

But behind the veneer of a charming little monochrome 8-bit adventure about talking animals and melon crimes, the story covers darker and more emotionally-driven themes, as well as a struggling gamer who chugs milk live on stream. Cults and gangs, political conspiracy, and corporate mischief. It’s also deeply funny, despite all of the animal-related puns.

Melons are illegal, melon seed smuggling is afoot, you help someone find their missing pet any, there’s hamster ska and someone named DJ Chili, socialism for dogs, this is the only way in which I want to describe this game. It’s one of the strangest and most charming walk-and-talk adventure games I’ve played and it’s something I’m going to recommend to almost anyone.

5. A Space for the Unbound

For the most part, I’ve already said my piece about A Space for the Unbound but it’s worth repeating that this is one of my favorites from last year. It’s a complete package with only minor hiccups, from its dreamy and immaculate pixel graphics to its thoughtful and heartbreaking story. I’m glad it shined in terms of award nominations, but at the time I genuinely worried it would stay like a hidden gem.

4. Chants of Sennaar

Another entry already written about to death by yours truly, but it’s special. A unique take on language-based gameplay with the crazy visuals and engaging narrative to back it up. It’s challenging in a way that makes translation feel incredibly satisfying. It’s smart and deliberate and fun in such a way that reminds me of how Journey made me feel way back in the day: that video games can continue to be so different than what I’m used to.

3. Diablo IV

Honestly? It thrilled me to the moon and back that they made Diablo disgusting again. It was so filled with blood and gore and membranous cocoons and half-rotting weirdos that I ignored a lot of the issues that plagued the diehard Diablo fans. Yes, it has poor itemization, weird class balancing, and an endgame that doesn’t have much staying power beyond pathologically grinding to the highest number and making a bunch of alts. But it also has interesting characters and the aforementioned return to ick and an 8-minute cinematic near the end that’s genuinely one of the most aesthetically polished cutscenes to come out of Blizzard in a while. 

I always intended to play through the base campaign and call it good, the same as I do with World of Warcraft, for the most part. To that end, Diablo IV entertained the hell out of me. The big, shiny, maladjusted deadbeat dad of an exiled archangel hit me like jingling keys at a baby. I ate up all of the religious delusion, abandonment complexes, and ritual sacrifice. Lilith is a refreshingly compelling antagonist, at least compared to whatever story Diablo III was trying to sell me. 

While my sorcerer felt somewhat less fun and explosive to play than my wizard, I thought the pseudo-open world aspect was executed well enough and I enjoyed most of the world events. Lackluster seasonal content and annoying cash shop aside, I had fun, and then I stopped as soon as it stopped being fun and started turning into a completionist urge. You’re going to just have to indulge me a bit here. 

As a comprehensive product, I can see why it’s disappointing to, it seems, half the fanbase. It doesn’t deserve across-the-board praise, but I appreciate the commitment to being nasty and dramatic.

2. Dread Delusion

Still in early access, but Dread Delusion absolutely deserves a place on my list. 

I try not to compare games to other games, but these visuals evoke something like Morrowind in a really satisfying way. It’s got a face perfect for a CRT TV. There’s a stunning visual blend of magical surrealism and grim fantasy, and creature designs that are creepy and considerate of their surroundings – otherworldly and off putting. 

That isn’t to say the world isn’t beautiful. Colors pop spectacularly, especially against the backdrop of a neon pink sky. It’s claustrophobic in the usual way that vast, formless horizons and the empty space outside of a sandbox feel. The combat/stats/items system is simple, kind of rigid, but pretty straightforward. The overall story is something that you discover in bits and pieces, mostly planted in the world itself for you to weave around, with the exception of a few quests and conversations. And while I’m still in the stage where the overall story is going over my head a bit, it’s well-written, leaning into the weirdness of the world and giving distinct personalities to the people who live in it. 
Dread Delusion is a complete package wrapped in aesthetic anarchy, and I love it dearly.

1. Baldur’s Gate 3

Obviously we were going to end up here. Even though I said “in no particular order” it was always going to be Baldur’s Gate 3 on top. 

Part of me wanted to write something about it when I was playing it, but I knew it would go on forever. Now, I know fantasy but I’m not someone who plays D&D, so I never felt like I was being as silly or curious as I could be. Even without the element of audacity, I was consistently blown away by the scale of this game. I would take whole afternoons and peel away my progression of the story in slow and steady increments like I was sitting down with a book. I threw any concept of a proper build out the window to make sure I had a high-level fireball in the chamber at all times. I became thoroughly captivated by my own character and pretty much every single party member. The new Hozier album came out around the same time and the combination of the two was basically horrifying.  

I think what I love most is how the writing throughout Baldur’s Gate 3 is so grounded in authentic experiences and emotions, that it exemplified for me what both fantasy and science fiction can do so well: examining the real fundamentals of the human condition through and with the fantastical and the divine and the supernatural. Especially with the sexual absurdity and obscurity that keeps pace with the deep romantic and platonic intimacy, the navigation of excruciatingly realistic and sometimes complicated issues related to that intimacy, sex, trauma, and so on. Obviously Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t the first game to have these topics, but the way they’re incorporated into this massive story and these nuanced characters with a feedback loop that makes personal development feel organic, it feels like they’re handled with more respect than usual.

Even with the bugs and some of the more disappointing story beats near the end, I was more often awestruck by the emotional depth and easy humor of the writing, plus performances that really blew me away at some moments. All the minute ways that items and spells can interact with each other is kind of astounding. The environmental storytelling is so vast, weaving together things like item descriptions, letters and diaries, unique scenes out in the world, and all serves to make the entire game dynamic and interconnected.    

Baldur’s Gate 3 had a tendency to crawl right into my brain and scratch all the right spots. Even the two-hour strategy-heavy fights felt like putting together a puzzle. Everything is beautiful and sad and bizarre and funny. It’s one of those games that looks and feels like real people put their hands all over it without a hint of irony. I’m happy I’m in the timeline where it exists, but I’m sad to know I won’t play another game that makes me feel quite this way.

About Franny

Hey there, I’m Franny!

She/they, from Seattle, been playing games and writing since I could hold things. I love games that give me the option to be mean, even though I always end up choosing to be nice.

See Franny’s Posts

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