2023 proved to be a blockbuster year for video games. Hotly anticipated platform titles debuted on a monthly, and sometimes biweekly, basis, consuming video gamers' time (and the contents of their wallets) like some viral new version of the ever insatiable Pac-Man. But it’s not as though gamers minded much, given the quality of the output. The biggest struggle proved to be staying on top of all the new releases, and there’s no doubt that many people will still be playing catch-up well into 2024, especially given the length of some of these games. Anyone who has already finished Baldur’s Gate 3 must be a wizard.
On the subject of wizards: Hogwarts Legacy looks like it could be the best-selling game of the year. February’s release of the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts prequel game generated controversy due to J.K. Rowling’s harmful anti-transgender views, with many choosing to boycott the game. Hogwarts caused such a stir that both PlayStation and Xbox introduced a means to allow players to hide the game on their accounts, resulting in further controversy. Despite all of this, Hogwarts still managed to prove the resiliency of the Wizarding World brand—though in such a crowded release year it didn’t make the cut for this list.
Other major events in the world of gaming this year included yet another cancellation of E3, which was once the biggest annual video gaming event. Though it was set to be the first in-person iteration since 2019, it was canceled when it was unable to attract XBOX Game Studios, Sony Interactive Entertainment, and Nintendo, companies which have all in recent years created their own events. And just so no one gets their hopes up, E3 2024 was also canceled—perhaps a sign to throw in the towel.
Despite the release of so many high-profile games, layoffs rocked the industry. Bungie, Ubisoft, Epic Games, and Unity all faced significant losses. Microsoft acquired Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. The purchase stands as the biggest monetary acquisition in video game history, giving Microsoft ownership over Call of Duty, Spyro, Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, and Candy Crush. Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA voted in favor of strike authorization for actors within the video game industry, part of an effort to ensure fair wages and manage the impacts of the rampant rise of AI. The outcome of these early negotiations between game companies and actors isn’t clear yet, but it’s only logical that these workers’ concerns parallel those of their peers in film and TV, as video games increasingly rely on performances that rival what we see in those mediums.
Over in those mediums, 2023 was a banner year for video game adaptations, starting off with the debut of The Last of Us on HBO. The series, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, proved to be a major hit with fans and critics, garnering 24 Emmy nominations. A second season, based on The Last of Us Part II, is currently in development. Other notable video-game-based series included Twisted Metal on Peacock and Castlevania: Nocturne on Netflix.
More From TIME
On the film side, true stories were in with Apple’s Tetris and Sony’s Gran Turismo garnering solid interest. But it was the fiction-based adaptations of popular video games that proved to be the real breadwinners. Despite early, and silly, fan backlash over Chris Pratt’s vocal performance, Universal’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie shattered records, grossing over $1 billion to become the highest-grossing video game adaptation, and the second biggest movie of the year, only behind Barbie. Universal struck gold again in October with Five Nights at Freddy’s, which relied heavily on the game’s lore and Easter eggs to become the highest-grossing horror film of 2023. Universal currently has sequels to both films in early development; their success has undoubtedly motivated other studios to take a look at the kid-friendly video game properties they have at their disposal.
But back to the games themselves: If there is an overarching theme to this year’s best releases, it is the power of human connection and what it means both to have and to lose it. Perhaps it’s a result of moving out of the pandemic era, or maybe it’s because divisions along political, religious, and cultural lines feel increasingly pronounced. But whether it comes in the form of games that encourage a multiplayer experience, or solo games that hinge on the importance of community, the best games of 2023 consciously placed attention on the far-reaching consequences of the personal decisions made by the characters we play as—and, by extension, ourselves.
Here are TIME’s favorite games of the year.
One of the year’s most pleasant surprises came from New Zealand indie developer Black Salt Games. What initially appears to be a normal fishing game takes a disturbing dive into Lovecraftian lore. The player controls the Fisherman, who on a small motorized boat traverses the waters surrounding a group of islands, catching various fish and salvage they can sell at the settlement or to traveling merchants for boat upgrades. And those upgrades are certainly needed when night falls as the catch of the day turns to sea monsters, ghost ships, and strange phenomena enhanced by the Fisherman’s hallucinations. As he explores, completing side quests, gathering artifacts, and capturing messages in bottles, it becomes clear that the waters are hiding a much larger mystery. While the game lacks the polish of its AAA counterparts, eye-catching art design, great use of sound, and an ambitious format built into seemingly simple gameplay make Dredge one to play and Black Salt Games one to watch.
Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, PC
9. Diablo IV
The iconic dungeon crawler returned with more classes, more weapons, and more demons to slay. Blizzard Entertainment’s fourth core game in the series plays much like the previous ones in which players choose between several customizable classes (Druid, Barbarian, Rogue, Sorcerer, and Necromancer) and travel between five beautifully rendered regions. As usual, the player collects better gear and weapons while taking on harder enemies, leading to the game’s main antagonist, Lillith. While the game has faced some criticism over its somewhat repetitive nature, it’s a formula that has been proven to work for the franchise. Diablo IV may not be a big risk-taker, but it’s possessed by the kind of casual, satisfying fun that doesn’t place pressure on completing in a certain number of hours or avoiding spoilers. As far as play-at-your-own-leisure games go for this year, Diablo IV is one of the strongest, and bloodiest.
Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
8. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Respawn and EA’s sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order picks up five years after the events of the first game, with Jedi Knight Cal Kestis (Cameron Monaghan) separated from his friends and performing missions for Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). New threats working in service of the Empire emerge and bring the old crew back together, testing Kestis’ resolve to the Jedi way. The game offers new customizable features, like Kestis’ appearance, force abilities, and lightsaber stance (single-wield, double-bladed, and dual-wield), allowing the player to change combat strategies depending on the enemy type. Much like the first game in the series, don’t get too comfortable with your Jedi prowess as enemies are often tougher than they appear. Even a well-placed shot from a Stormtrooper can take the player out, forcing them back to the last save point and stripping them of their XP until that same enemy is defeated, Dark Souls-style. The game introduces a fast travel feature, which makes going back for collectibles and previously locked doors all the easier. As fun as the combat and new features are, it’s the emotional storytelling that makes the game such a balanced experience.
Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
7. Super Mario Bros. Wonder
It’s been a big year for Mario. Not only did the plucky plumber star in one of the biggest movie hits of 2023, but he also got his magic mushroom on in one of the best-reviewed games of the year. Wonder is the first side-scrolling Mario game since 2012’s New Super Mario Bros. U, inviting plenty of nostalgia. Players can choose between Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Princess Daisy, Toad, Toadette, Nabbit, and Yoshi as they explore the Flower Kingdom and work to save it from Bowser. The game also supports multiplayer, up to four characters. It’s a great entry-point game, especially for younger gamers getting into Mario through the recent movie. For older gamers, it still feels like classic Mario, but now with better graphics, which means there’s plenty to love and little to explain in terms of gameplay. But one new feature that mixes things up is the Wonder Flowers, which have a reality-altering effect on the map when collected. The result is enough to make gamers of any age proclaim "Wahoo!"
Available on Nintendo Switch
6. Dead Space (Remake)
Whether or not anyone can hear you, there will be plenty of screaming in Dead Space. The remake of the iconic survival horror game from Motive Studio and EA may retell a familiar story, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you know what’s around every corner. Dead Space puts the player back into the mining suit of Isaac Clarke as he searches the U.S.S. Ishimura for his girlfriend, Dr. Nicole Brennan. Of course, that’s easier said than done as the ship is overrun by Necromorphs, set loose by the mysterious stone artifact known as The Marker. Not only is Isaac no longer a silent protagonist, he also now traverses the ship’s anti-gravity sections with more ease. Small blessings like these make the game’s scares a little more endurable, but one can never rest too comfortably as threats lurk around every corner, bursting out of doors, vents, and fallen crew members. It’s an incredibly designed game, with lighting and sound design that not only takes full advantage of the current-gen systems, but creates an end result so terrifying that it forces the player to take a deep breath and check their supplies before venturing forward at every point.
Available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC
5. Resident Evil 4 (Remake)
The best entry of the Resident Evil series gets an upgrade that is more than worthy of the original’s reputation. Capcom has been on quite a run with their Resident Evil remakes and RE4 is the best of the bunch, despite its more action-driven gameplay taking away some of the fright factor of the earlier entries. The story of the original game is retained—players take control of U.S. Agent Leon S. Kennedy as he fights to save the President’s daughter, Ashley Graham, from the dual threats of the Los Illuminados cult in Spain and the mysterious virus known as Las Plagas. The remake updates combat, allowing Leon to move and fire his weapon at the same time as well as block with his knife. The map has also been updated, with additional areas and enemies for Leon to make his way through. One of the biggest improvements to the game is that Ashley has a lot more agency, and feels more like a partner to Leon, rather than being a constant chore for him to keep track of. All of these improvements and additions make RE4 a more enthralling adventure and a high point for contemporary survival horror.
Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, Mac, iPad
4. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
The sequel to 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom is the result of the planned DLC content for Breath of the Wild growing too ambitious. Nintendo’s Tears of the Kingdom permits the time and space for all of that ambition to get the spotlight it rightly deserves. Once again, the player takes control of Link as he explores the world of Hyrule in search of Zelda, and tries to prevent the Demon King, Ganon, from destroying the world. Tears of the Kingdom expands the open world aspect, adding caverns and sky islands to explore. The fluidity of both Link’s movement and combat, along with new powerups, makes traversing Hyrule a fun, though naturally challenging, experience. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the game and just explore, but the compelling story, linked to the ancient history of Hyrule, always brings the player back to the central quest and solving the mysteries that await there.
Available on Nintendo Switch
3. Spider-Man 2
One of the most-anticipated games of the year, the follow-up to Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales is an epic and emotional journey that furthers the themes of the previous two games and allows the characters and the city they inhabit to evolve. Spider-Man 2 puts the player in control of both Peter Parker and Miles Morales, giving them both their own arcs that aptly reflect where they are in their lives respectively. The return of Harry Osborn and the emergence of Kraven the Hunter shake up Miles, Peter, and MJ’s partnership, and the arrival of Venom threatens to tear the city apart. While the previous two games were already incredibly intuitive, Insomniac somehow managed to improve the gameplay even further with the addition of web wings, and a reconstructed gadget and power wheel which makes taking down enemies a much smoother and more immediate process. While the game may be a little shorter than Spider-Man, the side quests are more meaningful and work better within the context of the game’s themes on the finite nature of time. Ironically, Spider-Man 2 is a game you just won’t want to end. When it does, we’re left with the greatest superhero game ever made.
Available on PlayStation 5
2. Baldur’s Gate 3
Larian Studios’ third entry in the Baldur’s Gate franchise takes the RPG to new heights. Based on Dungeons & Dragons, Baldur’s Gate 3 is set in the open world of the Forgotten Realms. Players design a character, choosing from 12 classes, and join a party of pre-generated characters for an adventure that can be played solo or multiplayer, allowing the player to toggle between the two. If you want to start the game solo and then join friends for a particular mission, Baldur’s Gate 3 allows for that back-and-forth experience. The gameplay utilizes turn-based combat and encourages mixing up attacks and relying on the party.
While much of this is fairly customary for fantasy RPGs, it’s the supporting characters and relationships you can develop that really make Baldur’s Gate 3 a special experience. Relationships, and romances, develop through plot and dialogue choices, and each companion character feels fully fleshed out, harkening back to the heyday of BioWare (which developed the first game). The game is perfect for those seeking the dynamic character complexity of the Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age: Origins. Unlike several other RPGs, Baldur’s Gate 3 encourages freedom, meaning there’s no one way to defeat an enemy or complete a quest, and key NPC characters can be killed off without creating an inability to progress through the story. Given the length of the game, which is well over 100 hours, there’s plenty to explore, both on your own or with friends, making Baldur’s Gate 3 the gamer gift that keeps on giving.
Available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC, Mac
1. Alan Wake II
Some believed it would never happen. But after 13 years, the cult game Alan Wake finally has a proper follow-up—and it’s a doozy. More than just another video game, Alan Wake II is a celebration of art infused with meta-narratives, musical numbers, connections to Remedy’s games, Control, and Quantum Break, and a frightening and elegant examination of writing and what it means to put your words out in the world. And if all of that wasn’t enough, it’s also one of the most terrifying survival horror games of the last decade, and practically begs you to keep the lights on. The game is divided between two protagonists and their journeys. The first is FBI Agent Saga Anderson, who is drawn to the small town of Bright Falls, Wash., to investigate a mysterious cult with ties to Wake’s novels. The second is Alan Wake as he tries to free himself from the seemingly endless loop of the Dark Place that he’s been trapped in for those 13 years. Eventually, their two narratives converge and their seemingly separate journeys are revealed to be more enmeshed than either of them thought.
Both protagonists are forced to question their reality: For Anderson, it’s through her detective skills and case files, the evidence of which is collected throughout the game by exploring and interacting with the various residents of Bright Falls. And for Wake, it’s through his ability to change the reality of the Dark Place and the world outside of it through his writing. While both characters carry with more than just a handgun and a flashlight this time around, the player is never made to feel comfortable or well-equipped. Alan Wake II is a complex yet rewarding narrative, as is customary for the game’s director and lead writer, Sam Lake. And it’s a game worth revisiting to discover additional clues and connections. Just remember to stay in the light.
Available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- Greta Gerwig's Next Big Swing?
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- In the Belly of MrBeast
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- How Long Should You Isolate With COVID-19?
- The Best Romantic Comedies to Watch on Netflix
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Contact us at email@example.com