We still too often talk about video games as escapes — little playthings that are big business but often considered not as serious as their media peers.
And yet in 2023 the most mature, poignant and thoughtful narratives I experienced were the interactive ones — whether they tackled major topics or were simply about the joy, vulnerability and curiosity that comes from entering a playful state.
Our critics and reporters select their favorite TV shows, movies, albums, songs, books, theater, art shows and video games of the year.
There are two games, in particular, that I have returned to often this year. While they couldn’t be more different, both are emblematic of what video gaming means and encapsulates in 2023. One is a relatively simple story, more of a poem than a plot. And the other is one of the largest franchises in the industry.
Both “Venba” and “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” show the beauty in interactivity, what it means to lean into a narrative and constantly ask questions of a medium. One wants to tell us a story; the other simply wants us to discover.
“Venba” is alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming, showing how a family falls apart — and comes together — over the decades. “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” brings something familiar into, a run-and-jump game that makes a surreal statement about the miraculous world we live in.
Both use the environment to unfold the narrative, giving us control to understand the digital universes we are entering. We marvel at the colorful worlds in “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” that feel alternately familiar and otherworldly, and react constantly to our movements. And we strive for vulnerability in “Venba,” putting together cooking puzzles in the hopes of creating connections.
One aims for awe. The other strives for sensitivity. But these are emotions that are triggered through play and participation, by having a dialogue with an adaptable game world. They were just two of the many standout interactive experiences of 2023.
I think, too, of“Thirsty Suitors,” a game that explores the myth of being able to simply move on from the relationships that mattered to us, and the existential, nearly midlife horrors of “Oxenfree II,” in which characters try to figure out their lives in heightened situations. “Dave the Diver” is a wild genre mashup — we fish, we run a restaurant and we discover a mythical underground world. And what to make of “Alan Wake II,” a game in which one’s insecurities can open hellscapes, all in a work that seeks to question narrative structure itself?
Narrative anatomy is explored as well in “Slay the Princess,” a visual novel with multiple unreliable narrators that upends damsel-in-distress and hero tropes with a mix of horror, comedy and romance. In “Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical,” we remix songs as they happen to direct the storyline, shifting the tone of the game and the tune in real time. “Saltsea Chronicles” is a collection of mini-revelations, as we explore cultures — including an island of cats — to unravel mysteries large and small, but the best are the most personal.
What drew me to all of them was the ways in which they questioned how stories can unfold — and often with mature characters. “Oxenfree II” deals with not only aging parents but the question of whether its main protagonist is fit to care for another human. “Riley has been out there, has seen what real life is like,” Adam Hines, co-founder of the game’s developer, Night School Studio, said in an interview this summer. “She graduated high school 15 years ago or more. She’s made a lot of choices, and a lot of mistakes, and when the game starts she’s trying to hit the reset button.”
Riley is a relatable hero. In what could have simply been a save-the-world game, she’s trying to save herself, and doing so by making conversational choices that explore the difficulty in being open with others.
Story itself becomes a thing to be toyed with. If a game such as “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” felt, as though we could upend the game world to conform to our whims, a work such as “Alan Wake II” tinkered instead with the flexibility of narrative-based storytelling. The horror-mystery not only shifts viewpoints but alternates between animated and cinematic worlds, distorting time and place as it explores mind games, free will and how our own fears can torture us.
It’s an atmospheric, mood-based game, as its storyline caves in on itself multiple times. The work has long drawn comparisons to “Twin Peaks,” and like the latter, “Alan Wake II” flirts with tension, bizarreness and absurdity. It’ll scare you, and then at once switch tones or characters, a game of shadows and nightmares becoming one of live-action video and reckless music. It works because it all feels so confidently weird yet realistic, a singular piece focused on exploring the innermost terrors of its characters.
How we experience the narrative is up to players, as “Alan Wake II” encourages us to swap characters and settings throughout its story. There are times we piece together a novel, moments the storyline breaks for a musical interlude and others in which we navigate a haunting world. It’s a patient detective game, but it’s also a taut action title. “Alan Wake II” is constantly challenging players to reimagine what it’s trying to do.
“If we think about games as a modern medium, and we think about all of these other popular mediums that have come before — novels, graphic novels, music and live-action film and TV — to me it’s always felt like all of those can be used inside the game as part of the storytelling,” said Sam Lake, the creative mastermind behind the “Alan Wake” series, at a prerelease event this fall. “All of that is fair game to use.”
“Thirsty Suitors” and “Venba” also experiment with genre, albeit in narratives that feel more personal, more heartfelt and more colorful. “Venba” wants to tell a multigenerational tale of an Indian family trying to make it in North America, touching on themes of class, family and cultural heritage, as well as the intimacy of cooking. One of the most tearful scenes one is likely to experience in a video game is the moment in “Venba” when the mother prepares a meal for her son, only to have him blow her off for other engagements.
“Venba” unfolds like a visual novel, until it‘s time to cook. Then the game becomes one of mini-puzzles, as we attempt to piece together recipes. More than that, however, it’s a chance for the game to reveal some of its most intimate conversations. “Thirsty Suitors” also uses food to explore familial relations.
“Thirsty Suitors” can be over-the-top at times, merging together skateboard and light fighting mechanics as the main character tries to heal relationships with family and past lovers. It’s a game about the power of reconciliation, and deeply personal barbs are paired with exaggerated animations. In one fight, for instance, we’ll dodge giant desserts. But it’s ultimately a game focused on the importance of forthright communication, as each relationship battle — and every meal — is a chance to heal.
“Venba” and “Thirsty Suitors,” then, become games about letting our guard down and bonding, when a relationship initially seems beyond repair. “We wanted to explore that in the game,” “Thirsty Suitors” director Chandana Ekanayake said in a recent interview. “How do you deepen a relationship or talk about things that are uncomfortable? Focusing on another task was our approach. That was fun to explore for gameplay but really therapeutic in real life too.”
Therapeutic was how I approached “Super Mario Bros. Wonder.” Often, the plump plumber Mario is considered an anonymous stand-in for the player, a character built for power-ups rather than personality.
He’s really a work of endless curiosity, here talking to moral-support flowers and transforming himself into an elephant, water-spewing trunk and all. It’s full of psychedelic flourishes — worlds change without warning and snapping, Mario-eating plants suddenly break into song — but it’s really a lesson in using our imagination.
To think, yes, but to play, and to remind us that a story isn’t meant to be told so much as experienced.