The video game crash of 1983 is probably what comes to mind when you think about terrible years for games. But might I suggest: 2023?
The end of the year is a time for reflection: the good, the bad, and the simply baffling. This year has seen a never-ending slew of layoffs and mergers and things that make me want to go lie down in a hole for a while.
It’s not all bad. The number of hours I’ve devoted to Baldur’s Gate 3 this year is a testament that not everything sucks about gaming. Or maybe the number represents a desperate needs to escape the oppressive horrors of the actual industry. Your mileage may vary.
So let’s talk about 2023. What’s good, what’s bad? Let’s find out.
Please attempt to sum up 2023 in gaming in a single word.
Melissa Brinks: Infuriating.
Maddi Butler: Exhausting.
Zainabb Hull: Depressing.
What news piece is still rattling around in your brain from this year?
Melissa: Maybe this is cheating because this news came out yesterday (as of writing), but Hasbro is laying off 1,100 people, including staff who work on Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, to keep the company “healthy.”
Did you know the Dungeons & Dragons movie came out this year? You might have also heard of things like Critical Role and Dimension 20, both of which have had huge viewership historically and this year, lending more popularity to an already exceedingly popular game. Or maybe you’ve heard of Baldur’s Gate 3, which has some cross-promotional items with D&D Beyond. And interestingly, Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks made 250% more in 2022 than he did in 2021, or 110 times more than the average Hasbro employee.
But yeah. Sure. Hasbro needs to cut costs, a great quantity from Wizards of the Coast, to keep the company healthy.
Maddi: This is almost certainly recency bias, but the whole Game Awards… is “situation” even the right word? The fact that the show has mostly turned into a marathon of trailers and special guest appearances while the people who actually make the games are rushed offstage and prohibited from making any type of political statement is just so emblematic of how the industry at large devalues the work of the people who actually make it run. It’s deeply depressing to think about.
To my great regret, I will not be presenting the Best Storytelling award today as the organisers would not permit political statements. Here's what I would have said, and my message explaining my reasoning for withdrawing. #ceasefireNOW https://t.co/sJbYkOOynX pic.twitter.com/v6vuJKC8cP
— 𝕞𝕖𝕘𝕙𝕟𝕒 𝕛𝕒𝕪𝕒𝕟𝕥𝕙 (@betterthemask) November 10, 2023
Zainabb: Fuck CEOs. Like Maddi, it’s hard not to keenly feel the total unwillingness of mainstream shows like the Game Awards to recognise Israel’s current ramping-up of the genocide in Palestine, especially when the industry remains structurally racist and Islamophobic. It feels like supporting a ceasefire in Gaza is the bare minimum that high profile figures in gaming could do, but I guess wheeling out Willy Wonka and famous puppets is more important.
The absolutely horrendous number of layoffs this year also lives rent-free in my head, particularly as we hear about all the record profits made by bosses and the companies they represent. Still thinking about Epic selling off Bandcamp to new bosses who immediately fired all the unionised workers. As we enter a new year, I’m hoping for greater cross-sector worker solidarity so more games workers can unionise and fight for job security, especially if they’re marginalised.
Cress: Like the others said, I was really hoping something of value would be said at the Game Awards but… nada. It was so fucking long, and overblown, and all the developers were chased off as soon as they were on stage.
My wish for the New Year is more unions and a free Palestine!
Name one (1) good thing that happened this year in gaming.
Cress: I feel that, with the layoffs, a lot more people are speaking up about unions and worker protection in games.
Best game you played this year. Bonus points if you can honestly say it wasn’t Baldur’s Gate 3.
Maddi: As in love as I am with my hot drow bard, the best game I played this year was Betrayal at Club Low. Betrayal at Club Low is an RPG that feels like playing a tabletop game; the premise is that you, a secret agent, must rescue another secret agent from a dicey situation by disguising yourself as a pizza delivery person. To successfully infiltrate Club Low, you have to make skill checks that you can bolster with customizable pizza dice. I knew I was going to love this game as soon as it let me drink from a puddle outside of the club, and the often inelegant solutions to the puzzles throughout truly felt like the best aspects of playing a TTRPG with friends. I played on my Steam Deck, which Betrayal at Club Low is not really optimized for, and despite looking like an early PlayStation game it absolutely tore through my Deck’s battery life. In a weird way, I thought this unintentionally but perfectly encapsulated the futuristic-but-vintage aesthetic of Betrayal at Club Low. It’s hilarious and absurd and surprising, which delighted me in a way I haven’t felt with a lot of games recently.
Melissa: It’s not new, and I didn’t only play it this year, but the game of The Quiet Year I played around a backyard fire while eating s’mores and drinking fancy root bear was far and away my best gaming experience in 2023. Otherwise… yeah, it’s Baldur’s Gate 3.
Zainabb: Melissa, that sounds absolutely incredible! I live on crip time and neurodivergent time so I have no idea what I played earlier this year but I can honestly say, as much as I’m enjoying it, Baldur’s Gate 3 is easily not the best game I’ve played, this year or otherwise—I really like the writing and the horniness, but I’m not a Dungeons and Dragons fan, and the combat requires too much thinking from me to make the game one of my absolute faves.
Perhaps there was another best that’s lost in the fogs of the year, but I really enjoyed Saltsea Chronicles as a gorgeous game about community and hope, with a ton of replayability. I hugely appreciate the way it disrupts the idea of a singular hero and embraces conflict within and between communities, without leaning on “us vs them” thinking. If you enjoy narrative games, I can highly recommend this one.
Cress: While I still need to finish it, I really enjoyed Tears of the Kingdom! The machine creation system was an exciting innovation. I loved seeing all the tiktoks of Link walking away from explosions.
Despite some retread, there were enough new discoveries to be had in Hyrule that I was happy to come back for more. Still wish I could’ve played as Zelda though.
So… how are we feeling about the state of games and games media right now? Where do we go from here? How do we make this better?
Melissa: Bad! It gives me hope to see how discussion of working conditions in development has increased since I started writing about games, uh, nine years ago, but it’s frustrating that it had to get worse before those discussions took place. How many incredible people have we lost in that time period?
Where I get really pessimistic is games media, which is probably because I edit this here gaming website. There used to be a number of promising outlets where I could hope to see our writers flourishing. Now there aren’t. Where do we go? Is a sustainable career possible? What will happen to the game industry when the critics and press are forced to turn to more lucrative careers? It’s fucking depressing.
Zainabb: Unfortunately, I have to agree. We’ve seen some positive progress in the industry this year in terms of unionising and other labour organising, but we’ve also seen so many people forced out of their jobs, a trend we can see in other industries like the tech sector. Based on the way global politics are going, I’m not expecting things to improve on this front next year—here in the UK, for instance, the government is passing new laws that make it harder for workers to strike. I hope we see more, open, and widespread conversations about organising for labour rights, and greater worker solidarity across a variety of sectors.
It’s also marginalised folks most impacted by precarious jobs, short-term contracts, and a lack of solid independent media to hold the industry accountable. We’ve only recently seen a slight improvement in terms of anti-racism within the industry, and greater access for disabled games workers and workers of marginalised genders, although this access hasn’t generally come with the structural change required for marginalised workers to stay in the industry or feel safe at work. I’m concerned that we’ll see the industry sliding further back into the white, cis, male norms we’ve had to endure for so long. I do at least feel more positive about the tabletop gaming space, where games like D&D (where those norms are heavily entrenched) are increasingly sharing space with systems and titles built by and for queer and trans folk, and folks of colour.
Cress: Same, not feeling great. Thanks to Sidequest, I’m more informed than I was before. I’m not as knowledgeable as the others on games journalism and best practices. When I was working my feelings were, I just need to endure, get enough money to put away and be stable. I don’t want to think this way anymore. So let’s unionize, unionize, unionize, to start! And stay determined!
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.