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Niki Grayson's Top 11 Things of 2023

It might be a little late, but we had to wait for the photo film to develop.

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It’s nuts that I’m writing a Game of the Year list. After getting laid off from Fanbyte last year, I kinda thought that I was done with these. Not in a bad way, mind you – but I thought that my window on having a voice about video games was closed.

I worked at Fanbyte for 3.5 years. I miss that website and team every day. I ran our internship program, which produced three incredible alums over the course of its run. A lot of what I tried to do with that program was answer big questions. Why does the industry work the way it does? Who are the people who you can trust? Who are the teams in this business that are doing the work in a way that is sustainable and healthy? There’s no playbook for working in an industry that is as diseased as this one. There isn’t one for working in video games either. To work at the intersection of those two things?

Good fuckin’ luck.

I thought my job *gestures vaguely* here was to create an environment where new folks could learn how to do the work because no j-school in the country is producing anyone who knows how the fuck you operate in this ever-changing, broken landscape. I thought that was going to be my job for a while. I was wrong, obviously. I had and still have a lot to learn. A few months after the layoff, I packed all of my shit into a crate, left Providence, Rhode Island, and moved back in with my parents. I was depressed and stuck.

What does one do when, at the age of 27, your passion and livelihood are both taken away from you by a corporation that doesn’t know you’re alive? I felt like my life was built on the back of answering questions, and all of a sudden I couldn’t answer the only one I had:

What do I do next?

The answer, for me, was to step away from video games. I didn’t play anything that wasn’t called Fortnite for the first six months of the year. (Did you know that Goku is in the game?) I started making stuff with my hands, I really committed to the podcast that I make with my friends (If You’re Driving, Close Your Eyes is available wherever you get your podcasts and we have a Patreon). But most importantly, I did a lot of therapy and fell in love with myself! The distance that I got from this space was one of the best things that could’ve happened to me because it gave me the space to figure out who the fuck I am away from it.

I am so grateful to Grubb, Jan, and Bakalar for thinking to bring me along for this ride right after Summer Game Fest and to the rest of the Giant Bomb team for welcoming me with such open arms. I’m grateful to Shawn for being a perfect social teammate, to Bailey for reminding me that actually, people in this business are fun sometimes, and to Dan for reminding me what it was like to have instant comedic flow with someone. And I’m appreciative of you, the Giant Bomb audience, for either welcoming me with open arms or being wholly nonplussed by this new Black queer on your feeds. It is my pleasure to delight and/or confuse you.

Anyway, here’s my list:

11. Tufting

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I made a few rugs this year! Extremely weird of me to do, but I did. I have been on a bit of a craft kick as I try to figure out what my physical art practice looks like. I started with candle-making in 2021. At the beginning of this year, though, after a few too many gin and tonics, a bunch of TikToks, and an intro class (taught by a TikToker), I bought a tufting gun and made a few pieces.

The craft just isn’t for me, though. I love the tactility of it (few things feel as good as stretching the base fabric across the frame and that first puncture through the taught fabric with the gun) but it is time and space intensive in a way that I could not support when I started and have not missed in the months since.

If you’re looking for a shit-ton of yarn and a tufting gun, I know a person!

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10. Lethal Company

Good game. When you walk into a room that feels like it sounds like it’s empty and made of metal it sounds like it’s empty and made of metal. It’s got a headcrab in it. You can fall in a hole. There’s a mod to get a million folks in the game at the same time, then you can all fall into various holes. It’s great.

9. Fortnite

I think the fact that there are now three complete games inside of Fortnite that individually have concurrent player counts higher than many games’ all time sales numbers is fucking nuts. I don’t feel like anyone is talking about it. That could be for a lot of reasons including brand fatigue and also the fact that Epic laid off 16% of its staff this year.

Anyway, the team that is still around, though, is consistently churning out some of the best live service stuff on the planet. The Battle Royale team running OG Fortnite back to back with the start of Chapter 5 made it abundantly clear how far they’ve come since the mode came out in 2017 as a hastily stitched together spin on PUBG. You can be Goku in it. The guy I don’t like from TikTok is in there. You can still be John Cena. The Harmonix team just put Rock Band in the game, straight up. The Psyonix team put a pretty good arcade racer in here. There’s a LEGO survival game now that legitimately does feel like a spiritual successor to Minecraft in some ways. It’s nuts.

I was poor at the age of 12 and getting games was really hard for me and my family. If there were free-to-play games as good as Fortnite is, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now, but I’m happy that people have something as robust and well considered as Fortnite is in 2023.

8. The first three hours of Alan Wake II

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I’ve only played three hours of Alan Wake II because the TV in my Airbnb fucking sucks and I hate looking at it. It’s too far away, too high up, and is very clearly a Best Buy Black Friday special with bad HDR and a horrible color space. To play Alan Wake II on this screen would be sacrilege, so I got three hours in and then stopped.

I loved Control (it was my game of the year in 2019), and I am excited to play this video game after hanging out with the team in a very limited capacity between Summer Game Fest and The Game Awards. Sam Lake met Barley in June and I’m convinced that’s why the game is so good.

7. Fuser

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2020’s Game of the Year stands strong in the year of our Lord 2023, with a vibrant modding community adding every song under the sun at a rate that is, frankly, unbelievable. I stream this game most Fridays and it still hits just as hard as it did when I first played it at PAX East 2020. The DJ music mixing game continues to live on in its third iteration in Fortnite, but Harmonix captured magic in a bottle with this release and I’m happy that I’m still able to play it.

6. GB @ Nite

GB @ Nite is the only reason you’re reading this list, because it’s the only reason I am here. For years and years, I dreamed of being on The Couch™. And I did it! I was on the couch. My dog was on the couch. A dream come true.

Jeff Grubb is a blessing upon this business. He took on an impossible task and blew the bar out of the water. (I love a clunky mixed metaphor~). Jan is the best in the world.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the GB @ Nites this year.

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5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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That’s right! I’m talking about the same Zelda game that everyone else is talking about. :)

I did a classic Niki Grayson move (which is to say that I’ve done this once before, with God of War) where I replayed the first game before the sequel came out and then burned myself out on the whole thing.

I replayed all of BOTW (including the DLC) in the lead up to the release of Tears of the Kingdom and had a blast. Breath of the Wild fucking whips. I wasn’t, however, equipped to play another 40 hours of it when TOTK came out, so I didn’t! I’ll get around to it in 2024.

4. Super Mario Bros. Wonder

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Before Wonder, I don’t think I’d ever rolled credits on a 2D Mario game. I think the one I played the most was New Super Mario Bros., and I spent most of my time in that game playing the Poker and Blackjack minigames. Mario’s supposed to be in 3D.

After playing Wonder, though, I finally get it. Mario can be in 2D. It is filled with light and love and joy. In a year where I did my best to embrace those things in my life, it was nice to see those reflected here. The race + multiplayer mechanics are great and add a degree of camaraderie that I feel is missing from a lot of games!

3. Film Photography

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I started shooting film in high school. We had a darkroom on campus at my extremely weird (and now shuttered) school. I learned a lot in that first photo class, including the basics of film processing, and how useful a darkroom is if you’re a teenager trying to make out with another person for the entirety of a class period.

In any case, the most important thing I learned was how important the photograph is to our creation of memory. Literally capturing these moments in bursts of light is such an incredible thing. Shooting film is not cheap, but the moments that I captured – of my friends, my family, my dog, of outfits, of laughter, of tears – make that expense worth it. The consideration and care that I have to take with each shot (because they are finite!) makes me a more careful artist. I can’t wait to shoot more in 2024.

2. Marvel's Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man 2 is really good. It cost way too much to make and is representative of a way of making video games that is wholly unsustainable. They make Miles wear some bad shoes. It doesn’t do anything new, but it is a great video game! Sometimes you just need a great video game.

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1. Soccer

My game of the year is soccer. When I moved back to LA – the city I was born and raised in – I had no friends and a housing situation that I would describe as… precarious. I was looking for any way to meet people, to feel like I was part of something after feeling separated from any kind of community while I was living in Providence.

I found that community in Pandemonium, one of the supporters groups for Angel City Football Club. The season was a roller coaster for our girls. We started out horribly, fired our coach in the middle of the season, replaced her with an assistant, and then that assistant set the team on a monster unbeaten streak that landed us in the playoffs. Our last regular season game was against the Portland Thorns. It was roughly 1 million degrees outside and I was unbelievably drunk. Here’s what I looked like when we won that game 5-2:

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Tears of joy in my eyes, and in shock that this squad battled back from a horrible start to the year to finish strong enough to knock one of the best teams in the NWSL on their ass and punch our own ticket to the playoffs for the first time in the club’s young history. It was catharsis. And now, looking back, I see a lot of my own year in ACFC’s year – started out poorly but finished out strong. I am grateful for this beautiful, silly game and for the people it has brought me.

Oh, I also went to the World Cup this year. That was crazy. I met so many people, watched the USWNT crash and burn in person, and saw so much of one of the most beautiful regions of the world.

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Support your local women’s soccer team.

Thanks so much to you for reading this! I feel lucky and excited to be back in this space.