What You May Have Missed 2023: Indie Video Games

I wanted to start this opening paragraph on a positive note, but I’m going to be honest: 2023 was an extremely awful year for video game developers.  For all of the wonderful and innovative games that were released last year, there always seemed to be news of the people making those games facing extreme hardship.  Between mass layoffs and the encroaching presence of generative AI set to displace human skills, it has been very disheartening to see so many talented and passionate people being tossed aside so executives and shareholders can hold onto the imaginary belief of infinite growth.  To praise the video games I loved, without acknowledging the ongoing hardships the people who actually make games are currently facing, would not sit right with me.  I implore those who are just as passionate about this art form as I am to stay informed and to always try to remember and respect those who made your favourite video games a reality.

With this in mind, I have focused my 2023 “What You May Have Missed” list on a myriad of indie video games whose development teams typically range from the single to the single digits.  Each game here is clearly a creation made from a place of love and passion for the medium, inviting players to take a step into the vibrant worlds they have created and shared.  As with last year’s gaming list, I have decided to organize the game based on age ratings, with games intended for all ages, and containing next to no triggering content on the top.  Meanwhile, games that are only intended for mature and adult audiences, with trigger warnings being an essential thing to read when available, are at the very bottom of the list.  I sincerely hope this list can help you find at least one new video game that intrigues and delights you.

All-Ages (Little to no triggering content, appropriate for any age)

Feed All Monsters 

Developer & Publisher: DU&I

Feel All Monsters is a cute, cozy puzzle game where you have to determine the most effective routes to deliver food to all the monsters on a level.  With charming visuals and soothing music, Feed All Monsters was one of the most relaxing games I played this year.  That being said, the puzzles in the game are no slouch and make you consider your character placements, environmental hazards, and power-ups, as the puzzles gradually increase in difficulty.  Recommended for those looking for a creative, low-stress puzzle game.  Available on Steam for Windows.

i miss when the internet was chronological 

Developer & Publisher: capnka

capnka’s debut game, i miss when the internet was chronological, is a title you can complete in about five minutes or less, but the feelings that this game left me stuck with me throughout the year.  A lovely, if melancholic, examination into the Internet of the not-too-distant past.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) via itch.io.

Early Adolescents (Games begin to tackle heavier themes but are still typically light on any content warnings, recommended for players aged ten and up)

Aelfric the Wondrous

Developer & Publisher: LadyMeowsith

Parodies of the storylines and tropes of Japanese RPGs are not a new phenomenon, but what makes Aelfric the Wonderous special is that it has a great deal of love for the genre alongside an incredibly endearing love story.  From the user interface to the sound design, LadyMeowsith knows and loves her role-playing games.  Combine that with an endearing cast of characters, who undergo realistic character arcs despite their fantastical circumstances, and you have an extremely endearing BL visual novel.  Available on itch.io for the three major PC operating systems.

hlina

Developer & Publisher: sukinapan

hlina is another example of a short game that left a long-lasting impression on me.  With a visual style evoking nostalgia for the Internet of the 90s and early 00s, charming pastels, and a delightfully strange sense of humour, this is a point-and-click adventure game that I highly recommend.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) via the developer’s itch.io account, or to digitally or physically purchase as part of Indiepocalypse zine issue #39.

Lexicon Vitae

Developer & Publisher: StoneSable

2023 was an amazing year for games made in Bitsy, with several projects being among my favourite games of the year.  Lexicon Vitae stands out for being one of the largest games made in the engine as well as one of the most in-depth in terms of its puzzles.  A unique examination into the history, and meaning, of words in different times and places, this is a game that makes you consider how we all shape history in small but meaningful ways.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) via itch.io.

Teenagers (Games have more notable and intense content warnings which are unavoidable to the gameplay experience, reading up on content warnings is advised before playing, recommended for teenagers and older)

com__et 

Developer & Publisher: SuperBiasedGary 

Illustrations: esshemasha

com__et is one of the most difficult video games on this list to talk about, considering that it is a game that must be played to be fully experienced and appreciated.  A creative showcase of the unique type of storytelling only visual novels can achieve, this title is a delight to discover and experience, especially for those looking for a compelling queer narrative.  Available on Steam & itch.io for the three major PC operating systems and Android via itch.io.

Danielle Taphanel’s Bitsy Games

Danielle Taphanel’s three Bitsy games (Grow Light, Well Tended, and >DELIVERY) showcase the game engine’s ability to distill a specific mood and convey it in a short, yet impactful, narrative experience.  Through various shades of green, Taphanel creates evocative locations, from decaying cityscapes to Death’s garden.  Their games offer a melancholic examination of life, loneliness, and plants that leave a lasting impact.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) via itch.io.

Neko Can Dream

Developer & Publisher: Amaitorte (Nekobungi Sumire)

Neko Can Dream is an atmospheric queer-friendly adventure game about a non-binary cat-eared person who dives into people’s dreams.  With a quirky cast of characters and fantastical settings, this is a perfect game for those who are looking for an imaginative and heartfelt narrative with smart puzzles.  The game does touch upon heavy topics related to queerphobia, specifically cissexism, that are un-mentioned in its content warnings, so please be aware of this before playing.  Digitally available on the App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android.  Physical Game Boy-compatible ROM Cartridges are available via AliceBooks and Pico-Tsuhan.

Stillwater

Developer & Publisher: Studio Clump

Originally developed and released for the Spooktober Visual Novel Jam in 2021, Stillwater has been remastered to expand and polish an already engaging detective narrative.  Studio Clump went above and beyond with their visual and audio design to create such a creepy, atmospheric experience.  Hugo and Noah are extremely engaging leads with their personal histories just begging to be further examined, which makes me hope we haven’t seen the last of them, and the delightful dog, Colby.  Available on Steam & itch.io for the three major PC operating systems and Android via itch.io.

The Moon Looks Beautiful Tonight

Developer & Publisher: Team Cetacity

Evoking the style of PC-98 visual novels, The Moon Looks Beautiful Tonight is a delightful, if nerve-racking, story about two maintenance workers trapped, both literally and metaphorically, on a space station.  When the Heart powering the station suddenly stops, the pair will have to take a chance and step into the unknown, even if it terrifies them.  Excellently written in how the internal and external conflicts combine, alongside delightful visual and audio design, make this an excellent queer sci-fi story.  Available on itch.io for the three major PC operating systems.

xexzee’s Bitsy Games

Among the selection of amazing Bitsy games released this year, the games xexzee created in the engine, where does art go when it dies? and homebody, are two of the most visually striking titles I have played to date. Their two games are distinct in terms of tone, but share a theme of how art can impact us and shape the way we view and appreciate the world.  That being said, there is a melancholy to the narratives that cannot be avoided, especially in homebody which touches upon some heavy subject matter that may prove distressing for some players.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) via itch.io.

Mature and Adult Audiences (Games that are intended to only be played by adults, as they tackle subject matter that is not intended for children and may feature intense/disturbing writing, visuals and/or audio.  Reading content and trigger warnings before playing these games is strongly advised)

59 FUCKS THE MACHINE

Developer & Publisher: gaybreast

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a good erotic game but personally, the best kind is those that have a wonderful story that is interwoven with, and integral to, the sex scenes.  With one of the best-executed bookends in a visual novel I’ve seen, exceptional character writing and world-building, and fantastic visual and audio design, 59 FUCKS THE MACHINE  is a game you don’t want to miss.  The fact that it has some of the hottest, and strangest, sex scenes in a video game I’ve played is frankly just the cherry on top.  Available on itch.io for the three major PC operating systems.

A Circle of Charity

Developer & Publisher: Bagenzo

Music: Bagenzo & fotocopiadora

A Circle of Charity made my jaw drop with its visual design.  Taking cues from Internet browsers, iconography, and gifs from the Internet of the ’90s and early ’00s, right down to the “broken image” icons, the aesthetics of this game are among some of the best I’ve ever seen in any game, visual novel or otherwise.  That being said, this is hands down one of the most heartbreaking narratives I’ve played in 2023, so reading the content warnings is strongly advised before diving in.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) via itch.io.

BOSSGAME: The Final Boss is My Heart

Developer & Publisher: Lilycore Games

With a myriad of unique boss battles, both in terms of visual style and gameplay, BOSSGAME was one of the most creative and challenging games I played in 2023.  That being said, this is also one of the most impressive games I’ve played in terms of accessibility settings, with an assortment of options that assist the player in going through the title at their own pace without frustrating them.  Add a delightfully charming cast of queer characters and the catharsis of taking down shitty authority figures, and BOSSGAME is a unique game for those looking for an extra challenge.  Available on Steam and itch.io for Windows & macOS, the App Store for iOS, and itch.io & Google Play for Android.

It gets so lonely here

Developer & Publisher: ebi-hime

Illustrations: mossinasi

GUI: Elduator

Music: yuzuki

It gets so lonely here was a pleasant surprise to me, by being one of the most tightly written visual novels I have experienced, with one of the best video game narrators at that.  A chilling game about being locked in a seemingly endless cycle of suffering, this is a game for those who enjoy grim, sapphic fairy tales.  Available on Steam & itch.io for the three major PC operating systems and Android via itch.io.

qrowscant’s Twine Games

Interactive fiction is a medium that can blur the line between video games and prose in a way I find utterly remarkable.  qrowscant’s debut titles made in Twine, Childhood Homes (and why we hate them) and MY BROTHER; THE PARASITE are both among the very best.  These are two awe-inspiring tales in terms of their ability to craft effective horror stories and contain some of the most creative visual presentations of text and imagery in any medium I have encountered.  Available to play on a web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, etc.) through itch.io.

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