2023’s Best Games Broke Down Cultural Barriers. 2024 Seems Poised to Continue.

I knew that I would love Thirsty Suitors from the moment it was first unveiled. If I had to pick a moment where it clicked into place, it’d have to be when the protagonist, Jala, summoned her mother in battle. Early in the game, you encounter Sergio, Jala’s third-grade ex, who has been working deceptively hard in her absence to ingratiate himself in her family and life. As you battle in a diner, Sergio becomes invulnerable to your “thirsty” skills, backing Jala into a corner. With no moves left, she conjures the one thing that can tear a person down in an instant: her own mother. A projection of her mother towers over the arena before slamming Sergio with a chappal. The psychic damage is done, he is emotionally scarred and vulnerable enough to be defeated in battle.

Venba, an entirely different genre of game, manages to cut even deeper at times. Between the preparation of traditional Tamil meals, the titular character Venba struggles to connect with her child, Kavin, in an entirely different culture. As he grows up, he begins to take on attitudes distinct from her own, challenging her and ultimately growing distant, especially as he goes off to college as a young man. Upon coming back to his childhood home, Kavin finds that he struggles to read the instructions of a recipe that Venba left behind–a recipe she prepared for him as a child–and begins feeling that distance on an entirely different level. What follows is confusion about how to proceed with the recipes, how to carry on as a person of two different worlds, about his own responsibility to his parents, and so on. It’s a heartbreaking sequence that paves the way for an ending that’s hopeful about the reconciliatory journey Kavin begins embarking on.

The brightest games of the year aren’t necessarily the ones you’ve seen all over the place. Those games–behemoth titles whose productions and releases are a whole thing unto themselves–are no less an achievement than the ones I’m choosing to spotlight. But whereas those games refine and expand in ways familiar to gaming audiences, Thirsty Suitors, Venba and other titles like them break down cultural barriers that have long existed in gaming culture.

I’m not Tamil, Indian, or South Asian in general. I’m a Dominican raised in New York, which thankfully allows me a number of touchstones, or more specifically experiences, similar to Jala and Kavin. Their respective games deftly stand apart in an otherwise crowded year of blockbusters for a number of reasons that I love. Thirsty Suitors, for example, takes that earlier summoning and ratchets it up to become the whole premise of the game. While you appear to do traditional combat, what you really partake in is a kind of psychological warfare. It turns insults, flirting, and uncomfortable immigrant feelings into psychic kicks and punches and basketball dunks that breach people’s walls to expose their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Venba eschews combat entirely, communicating everything it needs to through a cooking game, and the importance of food as an avenue of continuation permeates both titles. Moreover, though, these titles say something just as, if not more important, than everything else that came out this year. They say, “We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”

It isn’t just that Jala and Kavin, as well as the supporting casts of either game, are of a different race than the average protagonist or even gamer. I grew up in places where the vast majority of gamers I knew were people of color, and it’s absolutely refreshing to get to see them and myself in more characters central to these games we pour ourselves into; it never hurts to see yourself as the hero of the story. It’s that these games are windows into worlds games have otherwise sheltered folks from. Without games like them, we could continue, as a culture, to close ourselves off to real people in the world. Games have grown parallel to the interconnectivity of the world, and yet gaming’s absence of perspectives like the Tamil one have lended the culture an insular feeling, which has masked toxic and outright hateful positions and beliefs. The integrity of games culture could benefit from a widening of the experiences allowed under its umbrella.

Venba and Thirsty Suitors humanize vast swaths of people that might otherwise be bastardized, rendered a caricature, or simply ignored, and in ways that treat them as real people of the world. I can relate to Jala’s insecurities around her older sister, Aruni, and how she sometimes feels like the favored child for steering closer to her parents’ ideals and expectations. In another game, that storyline could be colored in a different way, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a worse direction. That it specifically strikes at generational conflicts atop the very real othering that occurs due to immigration and status is the cherry on top though, and allows for Thirsty Suitors to transcend being just any other tale of familial trauma. Venba’s concerns that her son Kavin is responding to an anglicized version of his name more often than its actual spelling and pronunciation–Yes, it’s Kavin, not Kevin–doesn’t reflect a feeling I know my parents felt, but it does strike a nerve of mine that’s been a sore point the last few years. The accent mark in my name may as well have been invisible to everyone my whole life, including myself. It’s things like this, both big and small, that plague frequently marginalized people and begets further misunderstanding. The tensions of these games are not only real but specific enough to make real people out of ideas.

While I’ve fixated on these two titles, they aren’t the only ones doing the work. El Paso, Elsewhere from Strange Scaffold is another brilliant title that comes to mind in the vein of classic Max Payne and is explicitly about the interiority of its lead, a Black man named James Savage, who is voiced by the game’s director Xalavier Nelson Jr. Its soundtrack, a hip-hop concept album, is a novelty in the games space and I am thankful all the time that it’s begun carving out a place for such a prominent factor in Black culture to deservedly fit into the world of games.

2023 has been a great year for knocking down walls and 2024 is hopefully poised to continue this trend. If I may betray a bias for a second, it is wonderful to have received these games and been able to connect to them on levels I haven’t otherwise been able to. I want something that more directly speaks to my own cultural identity; something that might canonize a Dominican or facets of Dominican life in a video game if only to make a similar declaration to what the aforementioned titles are making. Though I’m not sure of when that might come about, and my own game development aspirations have me noodling on ways to manifest it for myself down the line, there is something in the works that comes close.

Despelote, a game about Ecuador’s run at the 2002 World Cup and how the world changed for the people of Quito, is one of the most fascinating games coming on the horizon. It possesses an energy that you just don’t see often, which is probably no small coincidence considering who’s making it compared to who often is allowed to make games. Its vintage presentation, humble premise, and hyper-specific setting all work in tandem to make a game that can truly be labeled unique. I love great big blockbusters as much as the next person, but smaller titles like Despelote simply tell stories other games are either unwilling to tell or incapable of. These stories are as necessary as any other.

This year’s best games may have kicked open the door, but it’s on us to collectively continue through it and tear down any obstacles that might impede us further. We definitely can’t let the door shut behind us. But for now, these titles are worth celebrating, not just for standing on their own as great games but for delivering unto the wider games culture what it so desperately needs more of: perspective.

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