March 2, 2024

The biggest gaming stories of 2023

Top Gaming Stories 2023

2023 was a particularly wild year for video games.

On the one hand, there was a staggering number of high-quality game releases, but on the other, thousands of people lost their jobs. Two video game adaptations saw unprecedented success, while Hollywood continued to push into games m in less-than-savoury ways. A historic industry event came to an end while a newer one has risen from the ashes.

Clearly, a lot happened in 2023, so we wanted to try to paint a picture of the year that was. The list follows will by no means be exhaustive, but it will at least recount the year’s biggest gaming news stories and, hopefully, point to bigger trends that represent the state of the industry as a whole. Since we’re a Canadian site, we’ll also mention some of the most notable things to come out of Canada’s booming gaming industry.

Without further ado, here are the biggest video game stories of 2023, in alphabetical order.

Baldur’s Gate 3 takes the world by storm

Baldur's Gate 3 Baldur’s Gate 3 is one of the biggest, densest and most acclaimed RPGs ever released. Image credit: Larian Studios

Baldur’s Gate was always a cult classic RPG series thanks to BioWare Edmonton‘s seminal first two games, but the attention and acclaim that the Larian Studios-developed threequel has garnered are on another level entirely. To put it into perspective, so humble were Baldur’s Gate 3‘s origins that it was originally unveiled in 2019 for the now-defunct Google Stadia (see more below). But after a promising early access launch the following year, Larian continued to improve and expand upon the game until a record-breaking Steam debut in August 2023.

Even months later, amid Mac, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S ports, BG3 is tied with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom as the highest-rated game of the year, with players raving over the deep customization and progression options, incredibly well-written characters and branching narrative and much more. This all culminated in BG3 winning Game of the Year at The Game Awards and from many outlets (including us). As Larian itself has said, nobody expected BG3 to do this well, but that success couldn’t have been more deserved.

Canada continues to dominate

Sea of Stars Sea of Stars is one of the most acclaimed indie games of the year. Image credit: Sabotage

Throughout the press tour for his incredible comedy-drama film, BlackBerry, Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson has lamented the fact that Canada often gets unrecognized for its contributions on the global stage, including, in his case, the general lack of awareness that we invented the smartphone. It’s a great point, and in that spirit, we want to take some time here to recognize some of the biggest news in Canadian games this year.

Sea of Stars, a delightful Chrono Trigger-inspired RPG from Quebec City’s Sabotage, topped four million players within four months and won Best Indie Game at The Game Awards. Toronto-based Visai’s Venba, a heartfelt narrative cooking game about Indo-Canadian immigrants, garnered multiple The Game Awards nominations and blew up in popularity across the web. Awaceb, a French studio that recently relocated to Montreal, took home The Game Awards’ Games for Impact Award for Tchia, a lovely New Caledonia-inspired open-world game. Warframe from London, Ontario’s Digital Extremes continues to go strong 10 years after launch, including with big new updates adding characters voiced by The Game Awards Best Performance winner Neil Newbon (Astarion from Baldur’s Gate 3) and nominee Ben Starr (Clive from Final Fantasy XVI).

At the same time, we saw a lot of veteran Canadian developers reveal promising new titles and ventures. Austin, Texas-based Archetype Entertainment unveiled Exodus, an ambitious new branching sci-fi action-RPG from James Ohlen and Drew Karpyshyn, BioWare Edmonton alums who worked on the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. PlayStation revealed one of its first live service games, the co-op shooter Fairgame$, which is being developed by Montreal’s Haven Studios, the team led by original Assassin’s Creed producer and Ubisoft Toronto founder Jade Raymond. After various beta periods, Victorian shared world shooter Nightingale, from Edmonton-based Inflexion (led by former BioWare GM Aaryn Flynn) got an early access release date: February 22nd, 2024. Mac Walters, a former lead writer at BioWare on the Mass Effect trilogy, opened a new studio in Vancouver to develop an original sci-fi action-adventure game. And finally, Alberta played host to HBO’s The Last of Us (see more below) in a massive year-long shoot that showcased the province’s beautiful vistas and brought in nearly $150 million.

Not bad, eh?

Charles Martinet is Mario no longer

Charles Martinet Mario Charles Martinet’s lengthy tenure as Mario came to a strange end this year. Image credit: Nintendo

Few people in gaming have been as tied to a character as Charles Martinet has been to Mario, so it was quite a shock to see the news of the veteran actor’s retirement from the role in August. He’d been voicing the iconic plumber (plus several of his supporting cast) since 1991, and he’d even said at Fan Expo Canada 2021 that he hoped to continue to do so “until I drop dead.” His final time voicing Mario would be last year’s Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, which, while an excellent game, was a strange career endcap considering it’s not even a mainline title.

Then there was the weird way in which Nintendo made the announcement — a vague image on a social media post with the promise of what would later be an equally opaque video with Martinet and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto — which only further puzzled fans. The icing on the cake, though, was Nintendo saying Martinet would be a “Mario ambassador,” which led the actor himself to admit he didn’t even know what that meant. Ultimately, Nintendo would remain cagey about his replacement until fans datamined a Super Mario Bros. Wonder demo, revealing Kevin Afghani as the new Mario. It’s an all-around bizarre situation that highlights how overly secretive the gaming industry tends to be.

Developer layoffs and disrespect

Simu Liu The Game Awards At The Game Awards, Simu Liu was given more time to talk about his torn ACL than actual game developers were to accept awards.

When we talk about video games in 2023, the discussion has generally centred around the number of quality releases — the highest-reviewed slate, in fact, in 20 years. But that just makes it all the more important to acknowledge that despite these successes, nearly 10,000 people in the gaming industry have been laid off this year. This includes big studios like PlayStation’s Naughty Dog (The Last of Us) and Media Molecule (Dreams); Microsoft’s 343 Industries (Halo Infinite) and The Coalition (the Vancouver team behind Gears 5); CD Projekt (Cyberpunk 2077); EA’s BioWare Edmonton (Mass Effect) and Epic Games (Fortnite). It once again raised questions about the sustainability of the so-called ‘AAA’ gaming space, and a recent hack of Spider-Man developer Insomniac Games, which revealed the staggeringly high budgets for PlayStation games, only added to those discussions.

Outside of the layoffs, developers often had to fight just for the bare minimum when it comes to recognition. The complete lack of women in events like Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest and retrospective pieces from publications like PC Gamer had people (sadly) once again discussing sexism and internal biases in the industry. And more recently, Keighley’s The Game Awards came under fire for devoting more time to celebrities like Timothée Chalamet, Simu Liu and Anthony Mackie than the actual game developers the event is supposed to honour. In fact, speeches for winners were limited to a measly 30 seconds, and several didn’t even get to take the stage at all. Hopefully, 2024 will see some improvement in terms of both layoffs and overall respect for the people who make the games we love.

E3 dies — for real this time

E3 2019 The Los Angeles Convention Center hosting the last in-person E3 in 2019.

On December 12th, the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) was officially laid to rest. For years, there had been discussions surrounding the annual video game trade show’s relevance, especially after largely being absent in the COVID-19 era. In that sense, news of E3’s demise wasn’t necessarily surprising, but it nonetheless marked the end of an era. Since its inception in 1995, the Los Angeles-based event brought together the global gaming industry for star-studded, hype-filled press conferences and special behind-closed-doors demos that media would then cover for their audiences back home. Eventually, though, as digital consumption became increasingly popular, companies would discover how much simpler and more cost-efficient it was to simply produce Nintendo Direct-style video presentations — or even simple social media/blog posts — to reach their audiences. Meanwhile, Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest has also taken up E3’s June window to offer the same sort of streamed-at-home presentation but with a much smaller-scale in-person showcase for media. Outside of a poorly received digital-physical hybrid show in 2021, the last proper E3 was ultimately in 2019, so if nothing else, it will leave us with Keanu Reeves’ amazing Cyberpunk 2077 presentation.

Google Stadia finally dies

Google Stadia dead RIP.

While Google announced the shutdown of its Stadia game streaming service last September, the axe would finally come down on January 18th, 2023. Admittedly, this wasn’t a surprise to anyone who was paying attention, given Google’s poor support of Stadia (including closing its first-party studios before a single game could be released) and history of killing products and services. Nonetheless, it was a cautionary tale of how even a company as big as Google ca fail. At the same time, Stadia certainly had a lot of potential. The core streaming tech was sound, and it was even leveraged by partners like Bungie (to aid in remote Destiny 2 development) and Capcom (to offer in-browser Resident Evil Village demos). Even Jack Buser, former director of games at Stadia and current Google Cloud exec, admitted that Stadia worked best as a white-label product, not its own gaming platform. Pour one out.

Grand Theft Auto VI is finally revealed, with some hiccups

Grand Theft Auto VI poster The first key art for Grand Theft Auto VI. Image credit: Rockstar Games

The release of every Grand Theft Auto game is something of a cultural event unto itself, so there’s always going to be a lot of attention on any new entry in the series. But considering it’s been ten years since we got the still-popular Grand Theft Auto V, fans have been especially voracious for any news about its sequel, especially after rough gameplay footage leaked last year. Eventually, Rockstar confirmed that the first-ever trailer would drop on the morning of December 5th, but sure enough, another leak the night prior forced the company to release it several hours early. The brief trailer, which only showed in-game cinematics instead of actual gameplay footage, confirmed long-standing rumours of a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ style narrative set in Leonida, the fictional riff on Florida that includes fan-favourite GTA location Vice City (Miami). Fans will have to wait until 2025 for the game itself, but the trailer has, unsurprisingly, already racked up insane view counts online.

Insomniac suffers a major hack

Just two months after shipping the massively popular Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, Sony-owned Insomniac Games was hit with a significant cyberattack that led to the leak of upcoming games and employees’ personal information. On December 12th, hacker group Rhysida claimed it had breached Insomniac and demanded a ransom of $2 million USD (about $2.6 million) in Bitcoin, and one week later, it ended up dropping 1.67 TB of internal Insomniac files online. This included a bunch of gameplay videos from Marvel’s Wolverine, which hadn’t yet been shown publicly beyond a vague cinematic reveal trailer, as well as plans for future Insomniac Games like Spider-Man, Ratchet and Clank and X-Men.

While leaks have hit companies before, this was particularly notable both for its scope and the fact that the personal data of developers themselves was directly affected. Indeed, both current and past Insomniac employees had to worry about stolen passport information, employee documents, HR and Slack messages, the contents of their PCs and more. The leak was also significant because it offered a rare behind-the-scenes look at the ever-secretive video game industry, particularly when it came to game budgets for a variety of PlayStation games. Insomniac eventually responded to the leak to thank everyone for the support and say that an official look at Wolverine, which is still in “early production,” will be given “when the time is right.”

Microsoft acquires Activision Blizzard

Xbox Activision Blizzard Some of the franchises Microsoft now owns.

After an 18-month regulatory process, Microsoft finally closed its acquisition of Activision Blizzard on October 13th. Valued at $69 billion USD (about $91.8 billion CAD), the deal is one of the largest mergers and acquisitions in history, gaming or otherwise. It gives Microsoft a treasure trove of IP that includes Call of DutyCandy CrushWorld of WarcraftDiabloCrash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. The acquisition also comes after numerous reports and lawsuits alleging a toxic “frat boy” work culture within Activision Blizzard.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will improve that, but so far, a restructuring at Activison Blizzard has already led to the exit of several executives, including embattled CEO Bobby Kotick. For now, Microsoft intends to start bringing Activision Blizzard games to Xbox Game Pass in 2024, although Call of Duty, at least, will have to be released on both PlayStation and Nintendo due to licensing deals that were signed to get the acquisition approved. In a strange twist, Ubisoft also now holds ownership and, therefore, the final say over the cloud streaming rights to Activision Blizzard titles (another concession Microsoft had to make for approval).

Video game adaptations blow up

Mario and The Last of Us The Super Mario Bros. Movie and The Last of Us were some of the most popular pieces of entertainment this year. Image credit: Universal/HBO

While there have been many video game adaptations (and a handful of quality ones, like Netflix’s Castlevania and Arcane and Paramount’s live-action Sonic the Hedgehog series), it wasn’t until 2023 that we saw them explode in popularity. On the big screen, Universal’s animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie topped $1 billion and became the year’s second-highest-grossing film behind only Barbie. Given the poor reception to the 1993 live-action Mario movie and how protective Nintendo has been of the property ever since, the success of the animated flick was particularly notable and has already helped pave the way for a Zelda adaptation.

Meanwhile, in the television space, HBO released The Last of Us, a big-budget adaptation of the popular PlayStation series of the same name. With showrunners Neil Druckmann (one of the original creators of the game) and Craig Mazin (superfan and award-winning Chernobyl creator) at the helm alongside the incredible lead actor pairing of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, The Last of Us was given a level of care and attention not seen before for a live-action video game adaptation. This helped The Last of Us score more Emmy nominations than any show besides Succession, as well as a hotly anticipated second season that’s finally set to begin shooting in Vancouver in February.

In Memoriam

Several game developers and their collaborators sadly passed away this year, including:

  • Mike Berlyn (1949-2023) — The co-founder of Sony Bend (Days Gone) and creator of Bubsy
  • Brendan O’Brien (1962-2023) — The original voice of Crash Bandicoot
  • James McCaffrey (1958-2023) — The voice of Max Payne, Tom Zane and Alex Casey in the Alan Wake series and Zachariah Trench in Control
  • Emile Morel (1973-2023) — Veteran Ubisoft developer and creative director of Beyond Good & Evil 2
  • Matthew Perry (1969-2023) — The voice of Benny in Fallout: New Vegas
  • Lance Reddick (1962-2023) — The voice of Commander Zavala in the Destiny franchise, Sylens in the Horizon series
  • Kamar de los Reyes (1967-2023) — The voice of Raul Menendez in the Call of Duty franchise
  • Arleen Sorkin (1955-2023) — The voice of Harley Quinn in various DC games, including Batman: Arkham Asylum
  • Jim Southworth (1967-2023) — Larian Studios cinematic animation lead on Baldur’s Gate 3
  • Annie Wersching (1977-2023) — The voice and performance capture of Tess from The Last of Us

What were your top gaming stories of the year? What are you hoping to see in the new year? Let us know in the comments.

Header image credit: Bungie/Larian/Activision

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