Yes, I am still committed to the name Backloggies. And yes, it’s still not about what came out this year, but what I, personally, played and wrote about. If you have an issue with these rules, I suggest you start your own videogame newsletter. (No, really, I would like to read your videogame newsletter. Thanks in advance.)
So, without further ado, here are the Backloggies for 2023, my personal games of the year, regardless of when they were released.
I adored Return of the Obra Dinn when I played it in early 2023, and my appreciation for it has only grown with time. For me, it’s as close to perfection as a game can get. It sets out to accomplish both a style of gameplay and a consistent mood, and I can’t fault it on any front beside one’s own tolerance for frustration and deductive reasoning. Return of the Obra Dinn is the perfect game to get off your personal backlog, because, to this day, there’s nothing like it. (Well, mostly nothing. I hear The Case of the Golden Idol attempts something similar, but that’s for a 2024 Backlog.)
Citizen Sleeper is about finding personhood within the crushing constraints of industry, and it will break your heart if you let it. I can’t say enough about this game’s writing, which straddles the line between sci-fi worldbuilding and heartfelt character work, the two elements working in tandem to make the whole thing sing. The fact that there’s a sequel on the horizon brings me no shortage of joy. I would gladly play a Citizen Sleeper every year without complaint. Lem and Mina: I’ll always love you, even if I didn’t follow you off the Eye. I’m sorry. I hope you’ll understand.
Dredge hits all the right notes. Indie games have this wonderful habit of remixing elements from other games and bringing them into concert with each other in new and interesting ways. While I didn’t personally love Dave the Diver, it was easy to see what folks enjoyed about it: a pastiche of genre after genre that was eager to please. Dredge was my Dave, in that it combined a moody, evocative story with fishing and a little Tetris-style inventory management. It didn’t overstay its welcome, which is why I’m chomping and/or champing at the bit for the DLC to go on sale. Give me all the eldritch fishies you have, please.
Like a lot of you, this year I found myself lost in an expansive RPG filled with wonderful side characters and countless stories. Unlike a lot of you, that game was not Baldur’s Gate 3, but Octopath Traveler II. I’m not going to say that Octopath is a perfect game, because it has some pretty major faults. Chief among them is some deeply uneven pacing that can stymie even the most committed turn-based RPG fans out there. But what I loved about it was its commitment to celebrating characters that are so often overlooked by RPGs. As I wrote back in June, nearly every townsperson and NPC has a backstory you can read, putting the question of who gets to be a protagonist at the forefront of the game’s design. Since writing that, I actually went back to play the ending of the game, where all eight strands of the main story come together for a final act. I’m glad I did. What I found was comically in-keeping with my assessment of the game. Without spoiling anything, the Great Evil behind it all was brought about by characters I’d laughed off as mere archetypes and comic relief. Imagine my joy in realizing that a game that was so thoroughly invested in subverting our expectations of heroism was also so thoroughly invested in subverting our expectations of villainy. If you can stomach 70–90 hours of turn-based combat and the occasional questionable line of dialogue, you could do much, much worse than Octopath Traveler II. (Plus, the soundtrack is tops.)
I love Cocoon. In the year of the Very Long Game, it was a breath of fresh air to me. It does more with four hours than most games do with twelve. Playing it, I was reminded of the experience of publishing my short story “Brent, Bandit King.” Working with Monika Zaleska, an editor at the Brooklyn Review at the time, the story was tightened and refined, brought into its final form via the helpful perspective of someone who wanted it to be only its best parts and nothing more. I’m forever grateful to her. Playing Cocoon gave me a similar feeling. This is an edited-ass game. Nothing remains in Cocoon that isn’t essential. If indie games are the short stories to the novels that are AAA games, then Cocoon is one that ought to be anthologized and taught. I loved it, and I hope you do, too.
Whew! That’s it. Happy holidays to one and all, with wishes for ample gaming and family/friend time for each and every one of you. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your support of Backlog. As short-form social media becomes less of a thing, it’s been a pleasure to be able to write for you all in such a direct manner. It helps that I’m a pretty long-winded dude, so a newsletter is more my bag, but I digress. There wouldn’t be a Backlog without you, and for that you have my sincerest and continued thanks.
A quick note that I’ll be taking a brief hiatus in January to recharge the ol’ game brain, so I’ll see you all in February with some thoughts on Super Mario Bros. Wonder, a game that came out in October of this, Our Year of Perpetual Game Releases.
So that’s 2023, folks! Here’s to a 2024 where we all cross a few more games off our backlogs. (I’m looking at you, Baldur’s Gate 3.)