10: Fallout [official site (archived)] (1997)
Developer: Interplay Entertainment
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
The iconography of Fallout’s world has become so powerful that it can make a crowd at E3 holler in excitement and is suitable for merchandising and special edition branding opportunities. Vault Boy, the vault dweller’s uniform, the faux-fifties post-apocalypse – these are big budget concerns and where the series once borrowed from popular culture, it has now become a part of it.
With the sound and fury of the Wasteland louder than ever, it’s easy to forget where it all began. The first Fallout game, released in 1997, was as memorable for its societies of ghouls and weird religions as for its between-times flavour. It’s a wonderfully liberating game and there’s a sense that Interplay threw so many ideas at the wall that it doesn’t matter when a few slither to the ground rather than sticking. There’s a richness and weirdness to the tonal shifts – from grave survivalism and harrowing oppression to b-movie trashiness and Dr Who references – that the shift to 3d has never entirely recaptured. Most importantly, neneath all of the surface feeling there is a solid RPG system that encourages playful experimentation rather than determined min-maxing. It’s a system entirely in keeping with the unexpected playfulness of the setting.
Notes: One random wasteland encounter has your character discover a giant footprint, which is apparently a relic from an earlier version of the game, which included dinosaurs. We need more dinosaur RPGs.
Read more: The Quests That Got Cancelled, with information about Van Buren, the Fallout 3 that never was.
Where can I buy it:Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Fallout 2 is more of the same and Wasteland 2 goes some way toward recapturing the radioactive magic.
9: FTL [official site] (2012)
Developer: Subset Games
Publisher: Subset Games
There’s a lot of talk of producing truly interactive stories in games, stories that don’t simply sit alongside player input but intertwine with it. FTL is about as close as anyone has got so far. A spaceship roguelike in which you manage your crew and systems in a series of encounters with pirates, slavers, solar flares, asteroid belts and possibly deranged aliens, FTL is a machine for producing Star Trek plots by the minute.
That’s why it feels like a roleplaying game, despite being a roguelike in which you control not a single character but a team. Your role is that of the leader of a starship. You’ll quickly have your own set of stories, about daring attempts to put out fires by draining the oxygen from parts of your ship, even if it means sacrificing one of your crew members. You’ll also develop favourite strategies, ignoring the best way to complete the game – and there is a single best way, unfortunately – so you can grab that laser you’ve become attached to or fashion your crew into an interspecies boarding party.
Notes: FTL: Advanced Edition was developed for mobile but delivered to existing PC owners as a free update. It introduced a new playable race, a cloning bay, lots of new random encounters, and writing by Chris Avellone.
What else should be playing if I like this: It’s visually much simpler, but the free Sub Commander riffs on similar ideas of exploration, crew management and machinery failure.
8: System Shock 2 [official site] (1999)
Developer: Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
System Shock 2 is one of the best games ever made, whatever the chosen category might be. It’s one of the finest sci-fi games, crafting an almost unparalleled sense of place through careful use of its relatively crude engine and sublime audio design. Few games, whether set in the depths of dungeons or the depths of space, have captured the claustrophobia that comes from existing in a space surrounded and infiltrated by death. You’re never allowed to forget that a skin of metal separates you from extinction and that the interior spaces that the universe is pressing against from the outside are filled with corrupted and corrupting organisms.
That sense of dread and doom makes Irrational’s masterpiece one of the greatest horror games and, as a sci-fi horror RPG, it is unique. Character creation is in the form of a prologue and tutorial, guiding you through initiation into your chosen branch of service in the Unified National Nominate, and then, during the maiden voyage of the Von Braun, something goes horrible wrong. Shock 2 is a first-person survival horror game – a rare enough thing in and of itself – but it’s the use of RPG mechanics such as inventory management and character development that allow it to retain its power on repeated visits. There is no other RPG so tightly designed, so terrifying and yet so open to experimental play.
Notes: SHODAN > GLaDOS.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Bioshock games borrow half of the name but drop most of the horror and roleplaying conventions, most notably inventory management. Looking Glass’ Terra Nova recently arrived on GOG, its first digital retail appearance, and is a different sort of game made with a similar level of care and class.
7: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [official site] (2015)
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
What astounds me about The Witcher 3 is how human it can be. Not all the time – there’s a lot of busywork and a lot of uninspiring writing and acting, not to mention the series’ trademark exploitation qualities – but there is a great deal of humanity scattered across its vast and beautiful dark fantasy land. People’s stories, people’s sadness, people’s requests that are not brazenly shouted from the rooftops, people’s moving gratitude for your help, and the small dilemmas and small consequences you’ll face as you do it. In terms of being a roleplaying game, The Witcher 3 absolutely masters the wandering adventurer fantasy. The creators of Skyrim and Fallout 3’s mechanical populations must surely regard it with some anxiety.
When the expansions are in place, and the salt and pepper has settled in Geralt’s beard, The Witcher 3 might climb up a few places. As it is, for a game released so recently to have captured our hearts and minds is a remarkable feat.
Notes: It’s too soon to have clear mod highlights, but keep an eye on that scene if you’re spitting teeth that the release version isn’t quite as pretty as it was in early marketing. Also, turn off NVIDIA hairworks and immediately gain about 10 fps.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Skyrim if you want a less boobly experience with a more open skill tree and character customisation. Dragon Age Inquistion if you want more in-your-face-plot and endless herb-collection.
6: Deus Ex [official site] (2000)
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
JC Denton is a lovely man to be. He’s enough of a blank slate that it seems reasonable to approach each of his missions and escapades in a manner of your own choosing, and his body is a cyber-canvas that allows you to plug-and-play with all kinds of devices. He’s an outlet in which to plant peripherals and, as all the best RPGs do, Deus Ex understands that the player is the most important peripheral of all.
Ion Storm never tell you how to play or admonish you for taking the path less-trodden. There are constraints and boundaries built into the world, of course, but each area is constructed with an eye toward those constraints. Deus Ex wants you to discover the edges of its possibilities and to push up against them, because its designers are interested in your solutions and recognise that the most interesting ones are the ones that they didn’t necessarily predict.
Next to its brooding classmate Thief, Deus Ex is a remarkably bright and airy (dictionary definition include: well-ventilated) game. Where Garrett is defined by his own limitations, Denton is defined by the limitations of his world. Each area is a box of problems and the player has a Swiss Army Knife of a character with which to probe at those problems, and to craft solutions. It’s the essence of roleplaying – inhabiting a character and setting, and making them your own.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t allow for as much experimentation but is a fine game. The first three Thief games are as close to the immersive sense of Deus Ex as anything else available though.