My standout gaming experiences this year were exclusively made by small studios that took bold narrative and gameplay swings. Most had a core development team of under twenty. None fall neatly within mainstream game genres. I can attribute this unorthodox result partially to my evolving tastes and the lingering effects of the pandemic on big budget studios. The 2022 AAA gaming space was far lighter than average this year, with only Elden Ring, God of War: Ragnorok, and Horizon: Forbidden West standing out among critics.
While the five games below (unranked, in alphabetical order) won’t suit the tastes of everyone, I found them exciting experiences that should leave lasting influence beyond their small budgets.
It’s rare to play a game with pointed commentary about capitalism and corporate sprawl under the trappings of traditional tabletop RPG mechanics. Citizen Sleeper sells this package with gorgeous futuristic artwork, a memorable Blade Runner-esque score, and excellent writing.
However, the game’s biggest selling point is its intensely humanist point of view. Your character – a corporate “sleeper” robot with a digitized human mind – experiences the story through brief encounters from all walks of life on a vast space station. It’s a clever conceit because if one storyline doesn’t resonate with you, there’s a good chance another will. For me, a late game story of shipyard workers Lem and Mina trying their best to escape from the station was poignant in a way that crept up on me.
Sam Barlow is the modern king of the Full Motion Video (FMV) adventure game, a once thriving genre decades ago that today is all but extinct. Barlow’s previous FMV game Telling Lies was a solid effort yet reinforced why FMV mostly died off. Watching long running clips can hinder the player’s sense of agency and leave the story entirely reliant on the quality of the performances and screenplay. By the end of my playtime with Telling Lies, I solved the mystery but left the game with a shrug. In retrospect, the story would have been more effective as a traditional linear movie than a clip based game.
Barlow’s Immortality improves on the game aspect of FMV thoroughly, adding a novel hidden gameplay mechanic around clip playback that I won’t spoil here. The effect pushes what starts as an assortment of an actor’s “missing work” over three movies into something far more insidious and disturbing.
Appealing to the film nerd in me is the sheer visual variety within the film clips, given they are set across three different time periods and genres. Barlow also throws in a lot of content well beyond polished film footage, including PR events and scene rehearsals. Because feature film clips derive from a raw take, you get little snippets of action before and after a filmed scene. For instance, actors joke around after the director yells “cut,” or an assistant director uses a clapboard to call out the scene and take number.
Admittedly, the story’s ambition and ambiguity can leave the player stranded. I’ve read stories of players stumbling into the end game without knowing how they got there. Even after I rolled credits and rewatched specific film clips, I had to do some Reddit sleuthing to unravel certain mysteries. That said, the nonlinear gameplay adds tension and mystery; you never quite know what clip you’ll stumble upon next. Pivotal scenes have stuck around in my mind for a long time.
I have lingering superhero fatigue and haven’t sat down with a collectible card game for many years, yet Marvel Snap hooked me to the point I’m playing a few rounds most days. As a game developed by ex Hearthstone leads, the attention to detail shows: the artwork and animations are gorgeous and engage with the comic source material well. Progression as a free-to-play mobile game has felt fair; I’ve only bought a $10 season pass and still feel competitive for most games.
What should keep me playing over the long run is Marvel Snap’s gameplay variety and respect for my time. Each player tries to win two out of three randomly assigned locations, with each adding unique card modifiers. The net effect means no two games play the same way, even if your core deck strategy remains consistent. Individual games rarely last more than five minutes, and you can burn through your daily missions – the primary mechanism to level up and get new cards – in a half hour.
I’m generally not the biggest survival horror fan; the jump scares and fumbling in the dark with a limited inventory are too stressful for me. However, Rose Engine’s Signalis was addictive to the point I was playing every night through its rather somber conclusion.
I chalk the game’s appeal primarily to its aesthetic look, a homage to early 3D PS1 gaming. The setting is a futurist totalitarian state with android soldiers, here called Replikas, at the story’s center. The game’s influences draw on everything from David Lynch to Blade Runner, Ghost and the Shell, and Silent Hill, yet its exact look feels original. It’s also a game that leaves stretches of its plot at arm’s length, hinting at lost memories, repeating time loops, and doomed romances in the form of an unshakable nightmare.
Tunic is on this list, given how powerfully it generates fond nostalgia for my earliest gaming memories. It’s an isometric, modernist take on the NES classic The Legend of Zelda. Graphics and exploration are highly polished and well thought out, and the hero character – a cute anthropomorphic fox – has a lot of heart. The game’s intentionally obtuse dialogue and soundtrack add layers of puzzle elements.
My favorite element is a gorgeous, hand-drawn instruction manual. Throughout the quest, the player finds pages from the manual to help unravel the game’s central mystery and full gameplay mechanics.