Abby Russell's Top Games of 2023

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Marino

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Edited By Marino  Staff

What’s up, gamers! Abby, here! Your former Giant Bomb Content Producer turned current comedy and marketing writer at Jackbox games! You may have also seen my work at G4TV’s Xplay, my web series Abby Dearest, or on my Twitch page.

2023 was a year of high highs and low lows, and like many people, it all went by in a blur. What this year did offer me was a reinvigorated love of video games. After many years of working in games media and having to play every game as it came out, I was burnt out and turned off. As it turns out, turning your hobby into work simply makes it work.

Some time away from that work, and a series of excellent choice-based narratives made it an easy transition getting back to my roots and identifying as a proud Gamer, once again.

MY GAME OF THE YEAR

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There’s not much more I can say about Baldur’s Gate 3 that hasn’t already been said, but this is a game I have consistently played since I first picked it up. Nothing else has ever come close to the kind of breadth of choice and customization that are offered here. I loved it and it made many other games seem dull and rote in comparison.

GAMES I LOVED

(in random order)

Steam Deck OLED Limited Edition

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Wow! The Steam Deck rocks!! I have always been more of a console player as I find it much easier to relax on the couch rather than at my desk. I WORK from my desk and I FART from my couch! See the difference?

When the Steam Deck was first announced, it seemed like an amazing solution to my Couch/Desk Dilemma, if things actually worked as promised. I held out on getting it as it was difficult to justify the price, but when they announced a fancy OLED version with a transparent casing, I was sold.

Not only have I been able to play Baldur’s Gate 3 from anywhere, but (after a little setup and studying some YouTube videos) I can also use my Deck to play games remotely from my PS5, stream games via Game Pass, and emulate retro titles to my heart’s desire. Things I didn’t even realize I wanted until they were at my fingertips! I am genuinely shocked at how versatile and powerful that little machine is. I have played it every single day since buying it and I do not regret it for a single second.

Pentiment

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In the process of looking into all of the games I played this year, I discovered that I didn’t actually play Pentiment in 2023. I played it in 2022. But, you know what? Years no longer matter in a post-COVID society so it’s staying! And don’t yell at me for saying we’re in a post-COVID society! I know that COVID still exists! You know what I mean!!!

In Pentiment, you play as an artist starting your apprenticeship at the Abbey of a small Germanic town in the Middle Ages. Outside of preparing your masterpiece, you share meals and exchange stories with the locals, becoming enmeshed in the community and eventually finding yourself responsible for unraveling the mysteries of a series of murders.

Despite being a murder mystery, Pentiment proved to be gentle and really heartwarming. All of the characters feel like real people, full of their own flaws, humor, and wisdom. And the protagonist, Andreas, spends much of the game confronting–and often avoiding–his own personal demons and the choices he’s made in his life.

Although I didn’t find the final resolution to be wholly satisfying, I absolutely loved the journey getting there. Slowly learning about the ins and outs of the village, the local lore, and town gossip, I really felt like I was watching the lives unfold with real people. People who live in a time and place very different from my own, but who all are dealing with the same personal struggles and triumphs that we all must face–or avoid–over the course of our own lives.

The Case of the Golden Idol

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I love a mystery, I love weird art, and I love murder! The Case of the Golden Idol has all three! I replayed Return of the Obra Dinn earlier in the year and Golden Idol was recommended to me by my Twitch audience. And those sweeties have good taste so I immediately bought it and streamed the whole thing.

Golden Idol presents you with a tableau of a scene that has just unfolded. It’s up to you to deduce who everyone is and what happened between them. The story is exciting, funny, fantastical, and kept me engaged as each mystery built upon the last.

By the time I got to some of the later scenes in the game, I found myself confused and frustrated with what exactly the game wanted me to deduce. Eventually, I would grow impatient and I would often resort to brute forcing the puzzles to get them over with. But, despite that, I happily bought all of the DLC and I cannot wait for the recently announced sequel!

Disco Elysium

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I originally played Disco Elysium when it first came out, but bounced off of it quickly after being turned off of its abrasive writing style and too many options for my character to be racist and sexist at the start of the game. I was then harassed about it for months for saying this is why the game wasn’t for me. After really enjoying the narrative choices in Baldur’s Gate 3 and craving more games like it, I decided to give Disco Elysium another go.

I want to preface the rest of this entry by saying that when a group of strangers harass you online, it warps your brain. It’s something I wish no one would have to experience. There is no good response when these kinds of things happen. No way to further explain the nuance of your thoughts to people who only want to see you in black and white. Yet, often when I was going through this kind of harassment that is all I would want to do. Being understood is very important to me and it takes a lot of wisdom and experience to simply walk away from people who you feel grossly misunderstand you.

So, while I acknowledge that it’s likely unwise to dive back into those points I made four years ago when the game released, understanding my perspective on what I disliked about this game also speaks to what I loved about it. Forgive me if what I say next comes across as a diary entry or a defensive soapbox speech, but it’s impossible for me to write about my experience with this game without also addressing how its fans treated me.

Disco Elysium is one of the best pieces of world and character building I’ve ever experienced in a game. It felt as though I was reading a book whose story and character was molded to my choices, likes, and sensibilities as the story unfolded. Nearly every character was rich with depth and my character felt like an extension of myself. Which is why it was often so jarring when I would see an option to say something sexually vulgar to a woman or to contemplate a racist ideology as a choice to get past a gameplay challenge.

Many people argue that the sexist and racist choices in Disco Elysium typically lead to punishment for the character and therefore aren’t condoning that behavior. These options may punish the character, but they still reward the player and that’s often where I take issue. People want more content in their games. They want to know that they’ll have a different experience when they replay them. Why give them the experience to be racist or sexist?

For whatever reason I am more often okay with characters making perhaps the same sexist or racist choices in books and movies, but when it comes to allowing those choices for the player character in interactive art, it makes me uncomfortable. Something about being an active participant in enabling these vile behaviors crosses a line where movies and books cannot. And simply put, I don’t trust the maturity of gaming audiences. Especially considering how much harassment I got for just saying it turned me off when I first spoke about it.

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I think there is an interesting conversation to be had when it comes to the question on whether or not writers are morally responsible for how their audience interprets their work. Is Nabokov to blame for many of his readers seeing Lolita as a romantic love story? I would argue not, but Lolita is not an interactive fantasy.

Disco Elysium was released to a gaming audience that still holds many racist and sexist beliefs, and I don’t think having these racist and sexist options are going to change anyone’s mind, even if they do punish the player. It felt as though my lived experience as a woman was used as a pawn to make their character more “flawed” and that was a hard thing to slog through in the opening hours of the game.

Some may say I’m missing the point by not acknowledging that the game wants you to see that the choices you make in this game and many other games are terrible. Think about how many people you’ve mindlessly shot in just about every game you’ve ever played. I can see an argument that Disco Elysium is trying to set these traps to make you choose thoughtfully and not treat it as a game.

As much as this game wants to make a commentary on thoughtless, problematic choices we make in games every day, Disco Elysium is still a game with the same mechanics that are designed to reward the player for successful skill checks. And to find myself bumping up against racist and sexist choices over and over again, would take me out of an otherwise deeply immersive game.

Disco Elysium does have deeper things to say about racism and sexism, but it took a long time to get to them. And if another player is too turned off by that writing to get to any deeper commentary, I would understand that. As much as I loved the writing of the game, I also found it to be overly cynical. Every one corrupt, every ideology flawed.

Through this cynicism I also found great beauty and hope. I played my protagonist as a man perpetually apologizing for his past sins, while always choosing the most whimsical and optimistic view of the world whenever possible. I loved finding an empathetic look at the other characters and moments of joy in the cold, bleak world.

No matter my mixed feelings on Disco Elysium, rarely has a game made me think so hard about it at all. And for that, I think it’s a spectacular piece of art, flaws included. I would always rather something that takes risks and offers something new, even if it fails in some of those risks.

I do not think that the writers of Disco Elysium should have censored themselves. I do think that we as critics have a responsibility to look at art for both its intention as well as its effect. Each critic will bring in their own voice and perspective. I don’t write for everyone, just as Disco Elysium shouldn’t either.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder

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I have played many a Super Mario game over the years and the side-scrollers have always been my least favorites. All of them have simply been Fun Enough, but never thrilled me like the 3D Mario platformers did. After my non-gamer girlfriend found the 3D controls too frustrating when playing together in 3D World, I figured I would be glad for a game that is Fun Enough that we could more comfortably enjoy together.

Once we hopped into Mario Wonder, I realized that for the first time I was playing a Mario side-scrolling platformer that felt like it was doing something new (without forcing me to design my own levels). Yes, like all of the side-scrolling Mario games the graphics looked nicer, everything played more smoothly, and they offered some fun new power ups. But, this game is so full WONDER! I truly don’t know how else to describe it.

Each wonder flower would surprise me and often leave me laughing and excited at whatever new change my Blue Toad would experience. Super Mario Wonder offers a truly fresh take on a very old franchise and I was smiling the whole way through.

WarioWare: Move It!

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WarioWare Move It is a game that feels made for me! Each mini-game is silly and irreverent and even the tutorializing doesn’t take itself too seriously. I have been searching for a WarioWare as satisfying to me as playing WarioWare Touched was for me as a kid and I think I’ve finally found it. The multiplayer mode also means I can share it with the people in my life who don’t even care that much about games.

Lies of P

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I have spent the last few years playing through each of the Souls/Borne/Ring games on my Twitch streams and have really enjoyed sharing them with my audience. Nothing beats the satisfaction of overcoming a difficult boss or section.

Lies of P was a game with a silly premise and an even sillier name. A dark reimagining of Pinocchio? That’s steam-punk anime? Where you upgrade your P-Organ?? I’M IN!

I was shocked at how good the gameplay was. It feels just like the FromSoft games it was clearly inspired by and has a fun premise to boot. My main complaint is that unlike many of the FromSoft games, I found much of the gameplay to be very linear. In Demon Souls or Bloodborne, for example, if you get stuck on a difficult area, you can go to a different location for a bit to level up and practice or simply get a break from a frustrating section. With Lies of P, the area you’re in is the only area you get and you’re forced to get past it or give up entirely.

This is a small complaint for what is a very fun game! I came for the silly premise and the clear inspiration taken from Timothee Chalimet, but I stayed for the satisfying, challenging gameplay.

Suika Game

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Suika Game is a perfect 'turn your brain off at the end of the day' kind of game. It’s so satisfying and fun and I found myself returning to it again and again!

GAMES I WANT TO PLAY MORE OF

Alan Wake II

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Everyone I know who has played Alan Wake II has absolutely loved it. I have played a number of hours of the game so far and have really quite enjoyed my time with it. But, I can’t deny that there is also a sense of waiting for it to be as good as everyone says. What am I missing here?

Perhaps the hype has been too great or that it simply takes time to realize what makes the game so great. But for now, I’m enjoying the characters (despite some of their terrible American accents) and the writing and I’m eager to see what comes next.

Hades

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I first picked up Hades at the end of a long gaming year. As a big Transistor fan, I really wanted to like Hades, but I played for a few hours and bounced off, moving onto the next. After reading Circe and Song of Achilles this year, I was inspired to revisit the reimagined Greek gods and I’m very glad I did!

While I don’t love the writing or voice acting as much as many others who have played it, I was immediately hooked on the combat loop. Every time I put it down, I cannot wait to go back in and see if I can do a little better, go a little further.

GAMES THAT DISAPPOINTED ME

Marvel's Spider-Man 2

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I don’t have much to say about Spider-Man 2 as I found it to be a wholly forgettable and boring experience. It felt like a game that I would have been excited to play five years ago, but after my year of playing games like Baldur’s Gate 3 and Disco Elysium, crossing off the To Do list of objectives just wasn’t as satisfying for me as it used to be.

My good friend, Casey Malone, designs games for a living and he would talk to me about how in awe he was of the lack of loading screens, the seamlessness of fast travel, and the way the game would unroll every area of interest as you looked from one end of the island to another. Spider-Man 2 sounds like a technical marvel that is so sleekly done, the average player may not even notice the subtle mastery.

But, if the story is lacking and the gameplay feels stuck in 2018, what good do these technical marvels do for me? I would always much prefer a humble game with an interesting story or inventive gameplay than a technically beautiful game that has no soul.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

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Okay, okay! I can feel you getting ready to type an angry comment, but hear me out!

I really enjoyed Tears of the Kingdom. I think it is the greatest Zelda game currently on offer. From the improved abilities to incredibly inventive puzzles, it builds and improves upon the foundation laid out in Breath of the Wild wonderfully. Despite this, I was disappointed in the lack of depth found in the floating islands and the underground.

When I first played Breath of the Wild, I would delight in stumbling upon characters, villages, and secrets at every turn. With Tears of the Kingdom offering the same map as its predecessor, I was hopeful that I would share that same sense of discovery in the new areas to be explored in the skies and under the earth.

The sky island you start the game on felt like it set the stage of what could be for the rest of the game. What kind of villages and creatures inhabited these zones? Would there be a rival to Rito Village full of flying bird-people? Or a hideaway of people who know nothing of the ground below? Once I discovered the Depths, I started to wonder; would there be whole villages of blind creatures, who aren’t reliant on the light? Or a full town that has managed to build an oasis in the dark?

Instead, I was disappointed to find that although the islands offered some fun puzzles and the Depths provided challenging combat, most of what I discovered in both areas was large swaths of nothingness. The only mystery to be held was abandoned mines and ghost islands, with barely anything to discover of what might have come before me.

I played a ton of Tears of the Kingdom and had an amazing time. I would gladly recommend it to any friend who enjoyed Breath of the Wild. But, after the high of what it was like to witness the total transformation of a familiar series in Breath of the Wild, what place is there on a Game of the Year list for the sequel that you nearly forgot you played by the end of the year?

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alwaysbeclothing

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#1  Edited By alwaysbeclothing

Hearing about the Disco harassment is heartbreaking.

Incredible thought and reflection put into this list by Abby, really enjoyed reading everything. While I didn't share every viewpoint, I understood where Abby was coming from. Thank you for sharing!

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RWools

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It goes without saying but no one should get harassed for a gaming opinion and I respect the hell out of Abby for revisiting Disco Elysium. I still think about that game regularly as a singularly fascinating piece of art and Abby's perspective just gives me more to chew on.

Now, I just want to note that we have yet another member in the Suika gang! That game got robbed for GOTY.

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timprov

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Great list with excellent writing. Awesome!

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SirPsychoSexy

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pretty great list and definitely in agreement on spiderman and TOTK

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Zeprot

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Excellent read. TotK is my personal GOTY and has become my favorite Zelda, but I completely agree with the criticism that the emptiness of the sky islands and the depths was disappointing. Especially when the rest of the game feels so full.

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JD-D2

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This was great. Thank you, Abby!

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ogto

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great writing on disco elysium and i 100% can understand how and why that stuff rubbed you the wrong way. fucking disgraceful that fans harassed you, though i can't say i'm surprised... glad you took the risk to write your thoughts and feelings

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chamurai

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Great list Abby and I echo what others havesaid that it sucks you had to go through what you did because of the way you thought about a game.

I also agree with your take on TotK. It's my GOTY(although I hardly played any other 2023 game) but I found the underground area a tedious slog for the majority of my time there. I would just go from root to root just to open up the map and if there was an unusual brown splotch on the map, I'd go there to open the chest that was more than likely there. I didn't do much more exploring than that.

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hassun

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I'm glad you gave Disco Elysium another chance. Special game.

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Genessee

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Yeah, there's always people utilizing enforced nuance-less thinking attracted to nuanced games, and you were in the right to not deal with that asynchronous anonymity.

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JellyCube

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This was a great read! What a huge fucking shame about all the harassments though.

I watched your streams of Disco Elysium, and it was jarring to see your character being forced to become racist/sexist for failing certain checks in the game. It really makes no sense that the game treats those aspects as something that happen accidentally. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the streams and your list was a joy to read.

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hamsorrow

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Ditto with what everyone else added about disco elysium, I fell off of the game earlier this year because of how many rough choices I had to make in the game and how many times I had to choose between multiple bad options, and I ended up being the 'boring' cop instead of the extremist everyone wanted me to be. I love that you brought up how quaint the world of Pentiment is too. I fell in love with that little town in the same way that I despise the city in elysium.

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ALLTheDinos

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The comments on the QL for Disco Elysium (especially on Reddit) were and continue to be an embarrassment. Abby was always correct to give her opinion, and based on how the lead writer (allegedly) treated coworkers, racism and sexism is clearly part of their worldview. I really liked the nuanced criticism of the game here, and the list as a whole!

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fram

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Thanks for putting these words together Abby

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wizardmoobs

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Abby is still a threat

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Ben_H

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Ugh, I remember the comments on that Disco Elysium Quick Look. They were disgusting. I'm so sorry you had to deal with that. It was completely unacceptable back then and still is now.

I also completely agree with your TOTK thoughts. I had similar issues with the game. I had fun with it but yeah I couldn't help but feel disappointed with several aspects of it including how empty the Depths and sky islands were.

It was great seeing you on a bunch of Nextlander streams, including those amazing Baldur's Gate 3 multiplayer streams, along with all of the podcast appearances. Good luck at the new gig!

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mach_go_go_go

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Holy heck - Abby is an amazing writer?! The raw talent that has passed through this website continues to shock and amaze.

Really happy to hear re: working at Jackbox Games.

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JRocha93

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Similar feelings towards TotK. BotW made me remember why I love games and made me feel like I was getting sidetracked constantly because of how much I was running into. I can't put my finger on why I just didn't feel the same with this sequel.

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Maxipaxi

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Thanks for the writing Abby! Much love 💕

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insightofland

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I also fart from my couch

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CrimsonNoir

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Although Tears of the Kingdom is probably my GOTY, I think you made some excellent points on what they did with the sky islands and the depths. Once you got familiar with it, it did lose a bit of wonder with exploring it. Also I really enjoyed this write-up!

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Kyary

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I also can't stop thinking about Pentiment. It's a really special game, and I am so glad I was able to see it through.

Disco put me off for similar, if more vague "this seems like a bummer to play" vibe-based reasons but it's hard to pretend at this point that I've chosen to not play it out of some noble desire to be above that instead of my real reason (I don't want to have been wrong about it). I appreciate your thoughts on this one, so thanks for the write-up there.

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Geralts_gran

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Great write up Abbey!

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Ravelle

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Had no idea Abby was such a great writer, love me some written out lists! Fantastic list Abby!

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mellotronrules

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thanks Abby! this is a thoroughly thoughtful and personal reflection on some great games, and know you're missed here!

the harassment was inexcusable bullshit back then, and still is now. thanks for sharing despite it all.

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gamer_152

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#26 gamer_152  Moderator

Love the list, Abby, and to echo everyone else here, you never should have had to deal with the abuse over Disco Elysium. Keep on trucking.

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poopshtump

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Great write up/well thought out discourse here. Thanks Abby!

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AV_Gamer

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Good stuff, Abby. I also finally decided to play Disco Elysium this year after it became a PS Plus game. And I'm also discovering what a great, in-depth game it is. And how well written and serious the choice you make are.

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Eribuster

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Good list. Thanks for the insightful words on your Disco revisit.

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aperfecttool72

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Thanks Abby! You are fantastic and great! <3

Fuck the haters.

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Undeadpool

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Abby should write a damn book already.

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justinhall

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Abby perfectly summed up how I felt about Tears of the Kingdom. Thanks, Abby.

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daavpuke

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Disco Elysium is truly one of the best games of all time. Evocative, one way or the other. Very thoughtful write-up 👌

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LinkArterius

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Can’t imagine forgetting playing TOTK, lmao.

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SethMode

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Man, I distinctly remember the DE shit she was forced to deal with. Even here, though maybe not as truly vile thanks to mods, you still had plenty of condescending, passive aggressive bullshit just the same. Anyway, I think that that entry was probably my personal favorite of any former or current staff, ever. Just really thoughtful and introspective, and I'm also happy Abby got the chance to address this mostly on her own terms (even though it still sucks she had to deal with it at all)

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Smeat

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Super list Abby. Just a big shame that you had to deal with harassment over your issues with Disco Elysium.

In regards to Tears of the Kingdom, do agree that the sky world and underworld felt lacking compared to the great job Nintendo did with the overworld and freshening it up from Breath of the Wild.

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wollywoo

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I always looked forward to Abby quick looks! It really, really sucks that you had to go through harassment. Nobody deserves that for any reason, let alone for having an opinion on video games.

I really agree on TotK. It was great, but the sky and the depths are really missing something. It would be really nice if there were more characters there to interact with.

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styx971

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great list abby .. your not the only one to find TOTK disappointing . for me i really just didn't care about the building aspect they added , it was cool but not for me , and if you tke that away its alot of the same in a mostly same map with like you said sorta lackluster other maps added . the story was Fine but i really wish nintendo wouldd just do better at this point , the structure /pacing for it is pretty disjointed as well.

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geirr

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In reference to DE, I fully empathize with Abby's situation.

Speaking as a small-scale creator, it is disheartening to witness fans, driven by a misplaced sense of loyalty, turn into a mob, resorting to personal attacks and harassment towards those who dare to voice their honest & heartfelt opinions. I feel this behavior causes creators more anguish than any constructive criticism ever will.

On a very different note, I loved the emptiness of the Depths in TOTK, it gave me a lot of time to reflect on not only the game itself, but also my own life. Intrigued by the uncanny resemblance of the Depths architecture to the world above, albeit often subtle variations, I explored relentlessly, delving into every hidden corner of that desolate realm.

I'm less keen on the gameplay of the islands in the sky, but considering the dragon and the story implications, and how much I cheered and wept, I forgive them.

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purpington

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Pentiment! Song of Achilles! Circe! Wow such taste, big good.

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FunkyHugo

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Great list, love ya, Abby!

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lethalki11ler

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Great list! Sorry to hear about the annoying DE fans but glad to see you were able to "enjoy" the game nevertheless. Echoed a lot of my sentiments about how the game deals with racism/sexism.