Best of the Backlogs: Older Games I Played in 2023

That's DOCTOR Doom Jazz to you.
That's DOCTOR Doom Jazz to you. Screengrab from Paradise Killer
Back in August, I wrote about how joining PS Plus Premium relieved a lot of my anxiety and executive dysfunction around gaming. The huge library of free games finally gave me a chance to play a host of older titles that I had balked at when they were released and I was broke.

Today, I’m going to celebrate some games that didn’t come out in 2023, but which I beat and loved. Here are three of the greatest from my backlog.

The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (2018)

Swery is one of those video game auteurs who has a huge cult following based on the sheer weirdness of his games. Deadly Premonitions remains one of my favorite titles of all time, even if its sequel is shit. The Missing took Swery out of the open world and into a linear side-scrolling puzzler that blew my mind.

You play as J.J., a young woman who comes to a remote island with her girlfriend and then has to track her across a bizarre landscape. J.J. quickly finds out that she is virtually immortal, which is good because many of the puzzles have to be solved by using your own severed limbs or even your head rolling by itself.

It’s a grim, brutal game that continues Swery’s obsession with David Lynch and all things Twin Peaks. Without giving too much away, it’s also a tale of LGBT identity and the nature of self-harm. That might make it uncomfortable for some people, especially the gruesome way J.J. has to put herself back together during play, but it’s worth the trauma.

Call of the Sea (2020)

Dredge was on my Game of the Year list, but I never would have played it if I hadn’t tried Call of the Sea. The evolution of Lovecraftian stories from pure survival horror into other genres is refreshing and allows for some of the more subtle aspects of the mythos like personal identity to be explored.

The game follows Norah, a disabled woman who follows her husband’s expedition to a mysterious island (that’s the last one, I promise), where he hoped to find a cure. Instead, she tracks his progress through increasingly bizarre rituals based around fish gods, while discovering she has a greater connection to the eldritch than she realized.

Call of the Sea is an adventure game with some frankly unforgivably obtuse puzzles, but it was still a joy because of the presentation. The island is gorgeous, even when sinister, and the supernatural elements evoke curiosity rather than dread. Norah is by far the most likable and well-developed hero of a Lovecraft-based game in the medium’s entire history, which is mostly given to sulky burnouts or mute killers. It was beautiful and innovative, and I finished it in a couple of afternoons.

Paradise Killer (2020)

Paradise Killer dares to ask the question, “What if Myst was written by an extremely horny weeb that had just read Nietzsche?” The answer: pretty goddamn cool.

You control Lady Love Dies, a sort of demigod detective who is called out of exile to investigate the murder of several people on a mysterious isl … a landmass in the ocean that is supposed to be the latest version of heaven. LD hops around the community interviewing celestial beings and digging into the rotten core of the faith-based society.

Very few mystery games allow the freedom of movement Paradise Killer revels in. It combines the court/evidence style of Ace Attorney with the vertical traversal of a Halo game. This means it’s a bit easier to get lost and lose the thread of the plot, but the player is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the world.

Which is really weird and deep. There are foul-mouthed naked demons with CDs for genitals, a slave workforce that is basically prayed to death, forbidden love, tangents on proper whisky serving, and so much more.

The Wild At Heart (2021)

It’s Pikmin meets Where the Wild Things Are! Two young children run away from home and end up in a wilderness under threat from a shadow monster. Along the way, they’ll need the help of colorful hermits and an army of forest sprites with various powers.

The storytelling is deeply touching, especially as Wake opens the game in a derelict home where his alcoholic father has sunk into too deep a depression to care for him. It’s the perfect launchpad for a heart-warming adventure, and something that is only enhanced by the “let’s all work together!” nature of the puzzle solving.

The combat sections can be a bit frustrating, particularly the end boss, but getting through the world itself is simply magical. The gameplay and exploration is constantly rewarding, and the woods are much fuller than they first appear. If you’re looking for a low stakes but excellent adventure, this is tops.

Inscryption (2021)

By far the best game I played in 2023 was the card-based title Inscryption. You are dropped into a match with a demonic forest being that traps souls inside cards, and you have to play your way out.

By combining card play with some basic exploration and puzzles, Inscryption crafts a deep narrative about the nature of games. The play is incredible, offering a variety of different playstyles to win. While the latter two-thirds are not as brilliant as the first, they do drive the plot forward.

Beyond that, the meta story of a collectible card game YouTuber finding himself in possession of something strange and powerful is enough to elevate the game into something that deserves to be a cult classic. The secrets at the edges of the plot are mindblowing, and even tie into creator Daniel Mullins larger mythos. You have to play your way to the deepest secrets, and it is incredibly rewarding. For my money, it’s the most perfect game since Portal 2.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner