There are more wonderful games being released on PC each month than ever before. In such a time of plenty, it’s important that you spend your time as wisely as possible. Thankfully, we’re here to help. What follows are our picks for the greatest PC games ever made.
You can navigate this article using the arrows under the header image on each page, or using the arrow keys on your keyboard.
When we say, “our picks,” that’s exactly what we mean. We’re not interested in building a canonical list or paying heed to ‘important’ games in the history of the PC. All we care about are which games we love. The resulting list is personal and eclectic, includes some traditional classics and excludes many more, and is listed in chronological order. That means there’s no ranking system, so you won’t find one game sitting above all the others on a big throne. They all get a throne.
Don’t see a game you love on the list? Let us know in the comments why you love it, why you still play it, why it’s important to you.
Note that this list spans the full breadth of PC gaming history. Looking for a more regularly updated list of modern games you should play right now? Try our list of the best PC games.
Now, let’s celebrate PC games in all their breadth and glory. Press the arrows underneath the header image, or the right arrow on your keyboard, to begin.
Red Baron (1990)
An approachable but challenging 1990 World War I combat flight sim, straddling the line between action and simulation, which was followed seven years later by a multiplayer-equipped sequel.
Tim: Until hardcore combat flight sims simulate pilot training programmes as assiduously as they simulate flying machines, there will always be room in my life for light flight fare like the brilliant Red Baron. Using precious few polygons, colours and sounds Dynamix created WWI sky skirmishes that, twenty-seven years on, still challenge, persuade and exhilarate.
The thrill of encountering an enemy ace… the chilling realisation that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew… the panic of fleeing for friendly lines in a crate badged with oil and blood… Red Baron provides almost everything the fancier Great War flight sims that came after it provide, yet does so without overwhelming you with key strokes or testing your patience with long cockpit sojourns.
Today too many of the teams behind pop flight games assume that more kills equals more fun, and that inter-mission intermissions can only be made interesting through onerous ahistorical aircraft upgrade sessions. Dynamix make you work bally hard for every plugged Pup and downed Dr.I and reserve customisation rights for the lucky few who manage to attain the rank of captain. One of PC simulation’s most gratifying experiences is flying over RB’s Western Front in a hard-earned ‘personal aircraft’ decorated in a gaudy livery of your own devising.
Before StarCraft, before Command & Conquer and before Total Annihilation, Dune 2 wasn’t quite the first RTS game, but it’s the first one that we truly loved.
Alec: I’m cheating with this one, because it’s the only game I myself submitted to this ‘ere megalist that I wouldn’t, in truth, go back and play again. Thing is, I feel the urge to play it again at least once a week, and that’s been the case for a quarter of a century. It was my first RTS, and on that point alone it rewrote my brain: armies rather than a single jumping or pew-pewing man? Fighting for control of an entire world? The mere idea that my 13” monitor could depict something of this scale was mesmerising, and all else seemed so small and unambitious by contrast.
The other factor here was that I came straight to it from the Dune novels, recently discovered in the school library and with which I had become obsessed (though, like everyone else, I gave up about halfway through the third book: I wasn’t insane). It was my post-Star Wars and Transformers move to Big Boy Sci-Fi, dark and weird and enormous. To see the essence of those books and the universe within them recreated so deftly was another “wait, games can do this?” moment. And that’s what’s key to any truly good book/film/comic/whatever videogame adaptation, I think: capturing their essence, rather than attempts to remake the story or specific action scenes or in any way trying to be that thing but in a different medium.
As such, Dune 2 remains, for me, a high watermark in transposing sci-fi war onto a monitor. The eerie emptiness of its maps, the startling juxtaposition of scale between soldiers and sandworms, the constant push-and-pull of capturing opponents’ buildings, and that it cheerfully declined to make anyone a hero. Later RTSes were denser, fiddlier, the factions less equally amoral, and they had to create and convey their own, elaborate mythologies that so often served to undermine rather than lift up the scale and spectacle of their eternal battles.
Give me Dune 2 with HD support and a modern UI and I will need no other RTS ever again.
Ultima VII (1992)
1992 Richard Garriot-led fantasy RPG which, to this day, reads like a roleplaying game fans’ wishlist. Not just a heroic adventure, but a working world of its own too: an almost bottomless rabbithole to disappear down.
Adam: It’s been too many years since I first played Ultima VII for me to even pretend I can look at it without a huge dollop of nostalgia. My glasses aren’t just rose-tinted, I’ve pretty much got rosebuds sprouting from my eye sockets. It was, quite simply, the first game that ever made me feel like there was a world in my computer. A world full of people who carried on living when I wasn’t looking at them, who went to the pub and to work.
And the crafting system! It doesn’t have one! But you can make things because of course you can. There are no crafting menus or recipes or skills that you must level up before you can bake some bread. You just get the necessary components, use the correct tools, and there you have it. Bread.
I promise there are monsters to kill and quests to complete and all the rest of that good stuff you expect from a fantasy RPG, but you can also play bake-off.
The only games that have come close since are Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel. I’ve never cared for The Elder Scrolls games, Daggerfall aside, but when I see people’s excitement about them, I think they’re feeling something like what I feel for Ultima.
Day Of The Tentacle (1993)
The best point and click adventure ever made isn’t just notable for its characters and dialogue, it’s also a rare example of puzzles done right. Smart, witty and still delightful after all these years.
John: It’s simply the best adventure game. There are deeper ones, there are longer ones, there are smarter ones, but none embodies everything that made those early-to-mid 90s such a glorious time for adventure gaming.
Sure, Sam & Max had the song, but it also had some truly dodgy puzzles. DOTT did not. Its puzzles were sublime, still a ludicrous joy to complete today even though my playing it is more akin to singing along than puzzling. If DOTT were a band, the crowd would be screaming for it to do its washing machine jumper puzzle, but of course save it for the encore.
The recent remake is marvellous, primarily for the wonderfully restored audio. The ‘talkie’ version in ‘93 was always very hissy, making it a real joy for a life-long fan to hear it all so clearly.
Adam: I’m pretty sure it’s the first talkie adventure game I ever owned, though that may have been Sam & Max. It was certainly my favourite. I don’t think I realised how clever it was until I played all of the other point and click games though. It’s the characters I remember, and the sharp wit in the dialogue, but what really elevates DOTT is the puzzle design.
It’s tricky, clever and makes all of the abstractions of its peers seem utterly ridiculous. I rarely think about how adventure game puzzles are constructed – I know a good one when I see it, but I don’t know precisely what differentiates the good from the bad. DOTT, if I were to study it closely, might teach me.
The truth is, I’m worried about revisiting all of those point and click games because either humour dates badly or my humour has changed significantly over the years – whatever the case, there are so many things I found hilarious a decade or more ago that I cringe at now.
That said, I did brave Grim Fandango recently. Still amazing. I should do Day of the Tentacle next. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.
Richard: There’s many kinds of adventure, but in my book nobody’s ever made a better puzzle-box than Day of the Tentacle. The complex web of puzzles that manages to span three time periods and all manner of crazy logic is nothing short of a masterpiece, and that’s before you factor in the wonderful cartoon style, crazy characters and great jokes. Perhaps it’s better not used as a homework guide, but there’s no better benchmark for a great classic point and click adventure.
Almost a quarter of a century since its release, is Doom still the ultimate FPS? Maybe so.
Alec: Yes, it is. But I’m going through a Quake period now, so…
Richard:I really mean it. There have been so many shooters since, but I can’t think of any that have more longevity than the original Doom. Doom II, perhaps, but I never liked its main game as much. Despite its age, there’s something beautiful about Doom’s progression – the slow descent of the Phobos base from cyber-gubbins to fleshy organic hellscapes, and from there, to the conquered Deimos base and all-out hellish fields of the finale. Doom II was a much gimmicker game in terms of design and enemies, many of which it struggled with. Doom on the other hand felt exquisitely comfortable with itself for its entire run, and there’s still few more satisfying sounds than the KA-CHUNK of its shotgun or the oomph of its rocket launcher. While later games like Quake would blow modding wide open, there was also something satisfying about Doom modding being within everyone’s grasp, to at least some extent, be it redrawing sprites or making whole total campaigns, in a way that would quickly get more complicated. As a gamer, Doom was ‘ours’. No wonder people are still mapping and modding for it today.
Adam: The level design is rarely short of brilliant. Larger maps unfold as you find keycards and shortcuts, until the complexity of their maze-like structure becomes second nature. And there are setpieces threaded through, using lighting, the introduction of new monsters, the unleashing of hordes and movable scenery to intimidate and scare your solitary marine.
New Doom makes you feel like a demigod, punching demons into paste. The original never loosens its grip on your throat and it’s kept me tense and psyched for more than twenty years. And its make-believe horrors helped me to get through some real life ones.
Tactical combat, global strategy. The debut of the extra-terrestrial defense force introduced us to sectoids, chrysalids, terror missions, Skyrangers and the rest. Firaxis’ modern interpretation is grand, but we’re returning to the roots of the alien invasion.
Alec: Cornfields in the dark.
Screams from faraway, someone we had failed to save, someone come face to face with the unspeakable.
The distant hiss-thunk of an unseen UFO’s door sliding open, and something stepping through it.
The shrill scream and high-speed spin-on-the-spot that denotes a soldier’s death.
The monstrously curled, hunched image of a corpse – human or alien – carried in a backpack.
The lonely globe, the dim blues, the barely-there music. So vast, so fragile, so much danger.
So many names – Russian names, German names, English names, French names, Japanese names, Italian names, all sorts of names, each one once vitally important to me, then lost, forgotten. They saved the world, you know. I should have remembered them all.
Adam: I remember all of their names, the ones who saved the world the first time I defeated the alien menace in X-COM. Three of them fell in the final battle. I wrote fan-fiction about that battle, not in the form of an after-action detailing what had happened, but in the form of a post-script for the survivors and the fallen.
Eventually, I’ll probably end up spending almost as much time with Firaxis’ XCOM and XCOM 2, which I love dearly, as with original flavour X-COM. But this was the game that defined the nineties for me. Not Doom, not anything from the Lucasarts camp, not Half-Life or Thief. X-COM was the game that made me fall in love with the many possible futures that games might take. Scary, smart, challenging and unlike anything else I’d ever played at that point, it was the best thing I’d ever played. It’s still up there with the best of them.
Id Software’s follow-up to Doom saw the creators of the first-person shooter as we know it move to actual (albeit initially software-rendered) 3D for the first time, in a setting which shamelessly combined sci-fi, gothic horror and medieval castles. The weird worlds of Quake also gave rise to a world of massively influential mods, and laid vital foundations for today’s multiplayer shooters.
Alec: For years, I maintained that Doom was the most deathless of all shooters, that its 2D elements meant it could withstand the test of time in the way full 3D could not. Quake, by contrast, was brown and muddy and dull and unavoidably ancient, this absolute casualty of early 3D rendering. Last year, I changed my mind. Doom’s still great, of course – that ice-skating through hell speed, the archetypal weapons and simultaneously disparate and cohesive bestiary – but it’s no Quake. Quake, to these 2017 eyes, looks like art in a way it didn’t over the past couple of decades, when my mind was preoccupied with the march towards photorealism and under the delusion that anything made to lesser hardware-accelerated standards was an embarrassment.
I was the embarrassment, friends. Quake is not crude: Quake is heavily, beautifully stylised, with characters that look like walking knives, projectiles that look like fireworks from another dimension, and environments that fuse medieval, alien and hellscapes into a powerfully strange new world. And the weapons, often that little bit slower to fire than the fakeguns we use today, feel so very physical. That nailgun? Fires nails. Not bullets that look like nails – nails.
At the time, Quake felt like a couple of inevitable but small technological steps forward from Doom, likely to be ultimately forgotten. When I came back to it again last year, it felt like a wonderful intruder from a parallel but contemporary world, one where the deliriously weird, not the glumly military, ruled the action games market.
Adam: It’s the game that made a level designer of me. I’d dabbled with Doom but Quake’s angular maps and proper verticality gave me some big ideas. As a singleplayer game, I didn’t love it as much as Doom (OR COMMANDER KEEN FOR THAT MATTER), but in deathmatch it was my everything for a few months. It’s the only game that ever convinced me that lugging a bulky desktop PC around to a mate’s house on a bus was a good idea.
Alice: I might push for Quake 2 because its movement physics exploits still live inside my fingertips, ready to strafejump and cratejump and rampjump and slopefall whenever they might need to, but this is a good’un too. And heck, Quake’s mod scene has been more influential than entire years of commercial games. So much flows back to this and it’s still a hoot itself.
Dungeon Keeper (1997)
Management games were all the rage in the nineties. Cities, hospitals, theme parks, golf courses – you could tinker with the lot. Dungeon Keeper shook up the field by making you the villain in a typical fantasy world, playing with RPG tropes for laughs but also adding innovative and thematically appropriate twists to the management genre.
Alec: This was my break-up game, but not my own break-up, you understand. Parents had split up: long time coming, needed to happen, hell, things were so toxic that I wanted it to happen. I was not sad about the split (though my sister, two years younger and that little bit more emotionally vulnerable, was knocked for a loop by it) but I was disorientated to find myself moving regularly between two homes. One, my dad’s, and the one that had been my home for the past seven years or so, had all my stuff in it – CDs and books, mostly – while the other, my mum’s new, smaller, sadder home, was more like a hostel for me. I took a bag there but I kept nothing there: some errant belief that normality would one day return, despite myself, perhaps?
But my mum’s house had the PC in it. And, for much of my life before and after, home is where the personal computer is. On one of my first days there, I explored the small town that lay some twenty minutes’ walk away. This place would be 50% of my life for the next few years: what was it, what did it have for me, what did being here mean I was?
I came back with a copy of Dungeon Keeper, a game I had read of in passing and whose double-whammy of be-the-bad-guy concept and glowering, demonic cover art had embedded itself into my brain, even though I had not gone so far as to really understand what type of game it was. But I knew, knew that this would be what got me through this strange period of transition. Purgatorial, with its dark, echoing, lonely corridors; a chance to be vengeful and sadistic, after a couple of years spent being the patient, supportive mediator between furious, warring parents; and, most of all, a chance to control chaos, the very opposite of being buffeted by the violent winds of familial disharmony.
I go back to Dungeon Keeper quite often (it is a comfort blanket of sorts for me), and every time I’m very pleasantly surprised not only by how good it still looks, sounds and feels, but also by how effective a treatment for feeling lost and lonely it still is. Those imps, tap-tapping-tapping on the endless stone walls with their pick axes: imposing design upon the darkness, creating order from disorder, pathways through the fog. Sure, the broad, rather childish comedy has not aged well, but other than that this is most successful pairing of base-building game with a high concept that we’ve ever had. The sound, the gloom, how truly bestial its creatures are – an environment forever on the verge of collapse, with only my silent dedication saving us all from chaos. Dungeon Keeper still makes me feel like a life of solitude is a choice, not an imposition.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
JRPGs have been at home on console for much of their history but they’re becoming increasingly common on PC, both in the form of ports and original releases. Final Fantasy VII still stands at the top of the pile though.
Brendan: I’m sorry I’m so boring. The reason this is undisputably one of the best games in existence is because it took me over a decade to complete. That reasoning may not sway you but listen, listen. I was a youngster who got lost in FFVII before even reaching the death scene of a not-very-interesting character (a scene which became famous because it dared to take away your healer rather than being of any emotional significance). One evening, I don’t know why, I simply stopped playing. When I came back to it, I was lost. This is the curse of the JRPG, you put it away for a couple of weeks and when you return your bag is filled with a dozen swords with names like “Butterblade” and you’re lost in a bog with some guy called Reginald.
Fast forward ten years. It’s time to start from scratch. I rediscovered how much FFVII got right, but ultimately it was the artistry behind the world I admired, and how the sometimes-simple, sometimes-batshit story fit into it. This game was made in an era when your surroundings were a painstakingly drawn “3D” background, and it excelled at these. Midgar especially was a smokey cyberpunk dream world. Today these environments look like an Amazon warehouse viewed through a pair of steamed-up swimming goggles, but with an appreciative eye for past triumphs even this most boring choice of Best Game Ever feels justified.
The Last Express (1997)
Smoking Car Productions
A crime conspiracy and mystery story from the creator of Prince of Persia, all set during the course of a train journey in war-torn 1914, and which branches in all sorts of ways depending on your conversational choices.
Richard: One of the best things about the last few years has been seeing The Last Express finally get its proper due. It’s not an adventure game. It’s time travel. The final journey of the Orient Express on the eve of World War 1 recasts the train as a microcosm of the great European powers, with you caught in the middle as one of gaming’s best unreliable narrators. Listening in on foreign conversations and reading period-appropriate newspapers keeps you fixed in its immaculately recreated voyage, but the more you play, the more its true brilliance comes forth. Did you know for instance that when Kahina comes after you to get her master Kronos’ property back, you don’t have to solve a puzzle to evade her? Nope. Just lock your room door and wait until she has to leave the train. And that’s just one of many details in what remains Jordan Mechner’s crowning achievement in games – one that absolutely deserves to be remembered.
Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! (1997)
From a time when Firaxis was far, far more varied than the Civilization and XCOM studio it is today, Gettysburg! is an out-and-out wargame, set during the American Civil War.
Tim: 1997 was a vintage year for digital wargaming. Ant-like Close Combatants fought desperate top-down battles for Dutch bridges and drop zones. Squat Panzer General tanks slugged and slogged on fetching faux 3D hexgrids. Bucolic SMG valleys echoed to the sound of volley fire and tramping boots.
Firaxis’ turnless American Civil War title is that very rare thing a historically credible wargame with the common touch. The complexity is perfectly judged, the interface, a masterpiece of ergonomy. Multiple AIs (every opponent has his own personality) all capable, ensure there are no cakewalks and no foolproof strategies. Meaningful formations and informative graphics and sounds give the game depth and legibility that more recent treatments of the same battle can’t match.
Ultimate General, Total War, Pike & Shot… all turn pre-20th Century into captivating entertainment, but there’s something about SMG’s economy, opponents, and pace that sets it apart.
Falcon 4.0 (1998)
Still going strong almost twenty years after release thanks to a dedicated community of players and modders, Falcon 4.0 is the ultimate combat flight sim.
Tim: The quintessence of PC combat flight simulation. Rich, rounded and realistic, Falcon 4.0 started out as a paean to the F-16C Block50/52 fighter. Twenty years later, thanks to modders as ingenious and industrious as they are loyal and generous, the sim is now a multidenominational marvel in which numerous Falcon variants share airspace with flyable Hornets, Harriers, Fulcrums and Tornados.
It’s pretty obvious why fans have kept faith – continued to embellish and improve. If you’re looking for a serious combat flight sim with a great flight model, deep avionics and weapons modelling, challenging AI, carrier ops, multiplayer, dynamic weather and lively, unpredictable front lines, F4 remains peerless.
Naturally all the texture and realism requires some intellectual investment from the user. Don’t expect to slip into the BMS-enhanced F4 (BMS 4.33) in a day or two. This is a study sim in the traditional sense. Feckless manual shunners and optimistic one-of-these-must-do-the-trick key prodders need not apply.
Google Doodles (1998, first example)
Not one game, but many. Google Doodles take over the search engine’s home page on special occasions and they’re consistently inventive and beautiful, and often educational as well.
Pip: This isn’t a specific game but more about how the Doodles place games alongside other ways of expressing ideas or getting people to interact with information. I’m not just talking about their Pac-Man browser game – there was a Pangolin love story game for Valentine’s Day, and a cricket playing cricket for the ICC 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup and the Champions Trophy 2017, a quiz about komodo dragons for the 37th anniversary of Komodo National Park…
These are little, casual games which sit in your browser and maybe illustrate an event you’d never thought about. I think we often forget about them in conversations about PC gaming because they’re small and they sit outside the spaces we often designate for gaming, but I find that more valuable, not less.
Alice: I agree with Pip. Slipping these games into a tool people use every day is delightful, bringing them into lives and conversations that games would never touch.
It’s still one of the games that best show how much variety developers can pack into the framework of a first-person shooter and it’s a game with more memorable setpieces than just about anything else out there. The sequel might have pushed things forward with its fancy physics, but Half Life was a revelation of pacing and structure.
Alec: I’ve never forgotten the first moment I went outside. All these graphics we have now, these movie-quality scenes playing out on our monitors, and not a one of them has a hope of making me feel anything like the same shock, exhilaration, and terror that overcame me when I first stepped foot outside Black Mesa.
There’s so much else that Half-Life does right, but it’s the sense of place that still stands out. Never a series of levels (though of course it is, really) but rather one, huge, interconnected complex – an ongoing adventure, with the single, overriding purpose to survive and escape this newly-minted hell, not a series of missions or even a Kill The Big Baddie quest (though of course it is, really). Stay alive. Just stay alive. The only time I would see the open sky, I presumed, was at the very end, my victory marked by sunlight.
Outside is a mere halfway point in Half-Life, and outside is the revelation that you weren’t just in a hole in the ground, but rather you’re in the middle of nowhere and the middle of a warzone. Hours of darkness, then the curtain is suddenly snatched away. First, the terrifying ledges, so nauseatingly thin, so many thousands of feet above ground – vertiginous in a way that nothing else has been for me – and then the dam, the helicopters, that awful sense of feeling exposed now, horrifyingly visible to these faceless soldiers who were hunting me when they should have been helping me.
I’d been desperate to escape the tunnels, waterways and monster-haunted sidings of Black Mesa, but now all I wanted to do was retreat back into its shelter and shadows. Outside is enormous, and outside is terrifying. Words to live by.
Brendan: I first played Half-Life on PlayStation 2 after my mate rented it down the video shop. It had a special button that made your aim lock-on to head crabs. I thought it was rubbish. I’m so so sorry. I know better now.
Adam: Half-Life was the first-person shooter that made me realise there could be a story alongside the shooting. Not just a setup at the beginning – YOU’RE ON MARS WHICH IS ALSO HELL OK? – but a thread that ran through the whole game. It’s not a very good story really, and not all that far removed from Doom’s extra-dimensional beasties unleashed by Bad Science, but it actually influences your movement through the game in a way that was absolutely amazing.
There’s the bit when you’re suddenly fighting helicopters and realising that there might not be any help coming at all. There’s the opening, of course, and there’s the tentacle beast. Somehow I don’t think of the tentacle beast very often anymore, but at the time, it was probably my favourite setpiece in any game ever.
Alice: Good game; great mods.
Thief: The Dark Project (1998)
Looking Glass Studios
Dark fantasy stealth game: in fact, the progenitor of stealth games as we know them, but one for which simply making you skulk about was never enough. Filled with invention, scares, gadgetry and puzzlebox heists, Thief remains a high bar for anyone else to leap over.
John: Gosh all three Thief games were wonderful. Even the fourth was a darned good time. But for me it’s the first that was the most intensely magical. I remember being at university, I remember having to find ways to wedge my tissue-thin curtains into the gaps so less light could get into my room, and I most of all remember walking to lectures in the morning and finding myself unconsciously sticking to the shadows, scanning the skyline for alternative routes, before remembering myself.
And it remains as great. And as terrifying. And as utterly ingenious. It’s also far bigger than you could possibly remember, just hours and hours and hours of creeping in the shadows, perfectly robbing a medieval mansion, and finding yourself embroiled in darkly complex plots.
Adam: John is right. This is a very good game! It’s almost the best Thief game, even!
The Longest Journey (1999)
Relatively latter-day, somewhat sci-fi point and click adventure from the folk behind Dreamfall. The Longest Journey pursues darker, more thoughtful and more adult themes than did genre mainstays such as Monkey Island, making a strong case for real storytelling rather than a series of misadventures,.
John: Got to please the crowds, right? The Longest Journey is the only game I’ve picked for this list that I don’t want to play again. In fact, I don’t think I even could if I tried. Well, I have tried, and I couldn’t.
But wow, no other game has made such an impact on me, on my life, on how I think, on how I employ my imagination. The game is too long, too wordy, and nearly twenty years on, almost intolerably ugly to look at. It’s an ordeal to play at this point. But in 1999, it was not. And in 1999, it made an indelible mark on my soul. At the age of 22, it was the game I needed to play, a story I needed to hear, a game that imparted a core truth that has defined so much for me: you are not the hero of your own life.
Adam: When I first met my girlfriend, she hadn’t played a game in years. She’d grown up on Lucasarts point and click games, and loves Cannon Fodder and Lemmings, but other than a brief dalliance with The Sims, she’d found other entertainments to occupy her time since going off to university.
Given the nature of my job, when we moved in together she couldn’t avoid modern games. I was always sitting around in my pajamas playing them and telling her “this is how I pay the rent!” I’m still not sure she believes me.
We played more and more games together, and one day I asked if she’d ever played The Longest Journey. Given that she liked point and click games, I thought she might have encountered it before, but it was new to her. As quickly as I’d recommended it, I doubted the recommendation, for all of the reasons John mentions above. Too long, too wordy, too ugly, that fucking rubber duck puzzle.
She doesn’t even like fantasy stories so I figured that side of things would throw her off entirely.
But she did play it and from the first conversation, she was hooked. Seeing it through her eyes, I was struck by how modern it still seemed, the long rambling conversations and the mundanity of it all totally at odds with other games we’d been playing, so many of which rush head-long into punchlines or dramatic confrontations.
There’s been a trend toward shorter narrative games in recent years. The Longest Journey is a reminder that sometimes a long soak in the bath can be as pleasant as a brisk shower.
Panzer Elite (1999)
A vintage World War II tank simulator that continues to hold its own – and an adoring community – to this day.
Tim: Wings Simulations are, to my knowledge, the only developer with a creation on both the RPS Greatest Games list and the (surely in the pipeline) RPS Worstest Games one. While Söldner: Secret Wars did for the multiplayer military shooter what Thomas Bouch did for bridge design, Panzer Elite crushed all competition when it trundled onto PCs in 2001. It remains my favourite WW2 angry house game.
A dedicated cabal of modders have helped keep the sim relevant, rebuilding AFVs with 3D wheels, revising ballistics, smoothing angular map contours, and adding countless extra missions and campaigns. However, much of PE’s strength was there from the start. Spacious yet intricate venues encourage slow, circuitous advances and regular horizon inspection. An inspired control approach makes chaperoning tank platoons (you’re rarely in command of a single vehicle) surprisingly easy. Best of all there’s a carefully thought-out campaign system which fosters real concern for men and materiel.
Panzer Elite Action was a very different creature from the marvelous PE/PE Special Edition. If you’re interested in a spot of weekend Wittmann-ing be careful not to purchase the pale 2007 imitation by mistake.
Planescape: Torment (1999)
Black Isle Studios
A roleplaying game from the Baldur’s Gate and Fallout golden age, but one which moved the focus from heroic (or psychotic) adventuring and onto dark introspection. Come for the remarkable world and creatures, stay for a complex saga of remorse, immortality and redemption.
Alec: This sounds so facile now, but before I played Planescape: Torment, I didn’t realise that games could be sad – or that you weren’t necessarily the hero in games. Combing through the wreckage and ruin left in the wake of the Nameless One’s previous, unremembered incarnations, feeling guilt by proxy, wanting to make amends for someone else’s sins, I almost couldn’t believe that the musclebound guy on the front of the computer RPG box was not a spotless superman.
I stop thinking of loot and experience points. I start thinking about making things right.
I stop wanting to fight, and start wanting to talk down.
I stop thinking that I can make things right, and start thinking that maybe, at least, I can not make things worse.
I stop thinking that videogames are there to be my power fantasy, and start thinking that they are there to make me feel other things too.
Planescape: Torment changed the nature of this man. There was no going backwards after that.
Richard: Look, I can’t talk about Planescape Torment without bringing to mind images of Pepe le Pew making out with a struggling Chris Avellone. It’s just not possible. Torment is just too important a game for that. An RPG that fully lives up to the genre’s task of taking us to other worlds. A superb story, not just for the critical path, but for how both The Nameless One’s story and its themes spread like fractals throughout every major story and character interaction.
Mark Morgan’s main theme, dripping with both sombre tears and the dawning of hope. And that writing. All hundred billion words of it, and pretty much none of them out of place. It’s a game you have to play at least twice, once to play it, and again to really see how deep its rabbit hole goes. The interactions with the witch Mebbeth are still arguably the finest example of using quest mechanics to show rather than tell the nature of belief in a world, and that’s just one bright spark of… oh, so very many. It may or may not be enough to change the nature of this man, but it certainly understood how to give the RPG a fresh new spin.
Crimson Skies (2000)
When Old Man Gaming grumbles that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, he might well be thinking about Crimson Skies. A pulpy arcade flight game about 1930s air pirates, it sprang from the mind of BattleTech creator Jordan Weisman, and even though it’s not even twenty years old, it feels like a product of another age.
Tim: For a few exciting months in 2015 Crimson Skies 2 seemed tantalisingly close. La Moustache Studio didn’t have the official licence but they did appear to have the requisite passion for inter-war aviation and pulp adventure – the necessary talent for fashioning likeable characters and handsome what-if warbirds. Unfortunately, BOMB’s flight physics, bandit AI and sortie design ultimately scuppered the dream. The spiritual sequel, though entertaining, lacked the simmy bite of its near-perfect touchstone.
Crimson Skies (the PC one natch, not the solid but inferior High Road to Revenge) was a sim at heart and that willingness to embrace the challenge of flight and the limitations of pre-jet age flying machines set it apart as surely as its irresistible Indiana-Jones-meets-Biggles-meets-Robin-Hood premise.
Realising how dull and disorientating the wild blue yonder can be as a battlefield, wise Zipper Interactive opted to festoon their firmament with colossal gasbags and force players to hedge-hop and HOLLYWOOD sign-thread with ground-focussed sortie objectives. You spent a lot of time in the weeds or dwarfed by nature and architecture in CS and the thrill payoff was immense.
Alec: Me and flight sims are, broadly speaking, on a break that will never end, and that’s not the genre’s fault so much as it is Crimson Skies’ fault. It’s hard to imagine a flying game that would more perfectly nail the fighter ace fantasy I hold in my mind – the sights, the fantasy, the derring-do, the immediacy of controls, oh, the excitement. Even if there were Crimson Skieslike games today, by playing them I would merely be chasing a dragon whose highest high I had already experienced and could never recapture. Oh, but I crave more Crimson Skies; oh, but I can never go home again.
Deus Ex (2000)
There have been three Deus Ex games since the original but we still believe the first was the best. It’s cyberpunk role-playing that gives the player real power, not in the form of guns and gadgets, but in agency.
What it is, unquestionably, is extraordinary. The Looking Glass formula at its bravest, stretching itself the farthest it ever stretched – past breaking point in places certainly – and the results so wonderful. It’s tempting to imagine the game being made today, with decent AI and far prettier pictures, but you just know it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be so detailed, so meticulous, so complex – it just doesn’t feel like games can even be that any more. Which is why it remains so utterly special.
Alice: As John suggests, the dream of Deus Ex is bigger than the game. It’s a dream of a world where the game watches silently then casually reminds of what we did when we thought no one would care, a world which doesn’t follow scripted rules but is built of systems — both mechanical and social — that let solutions and outcomes dynamically unfold, where we’re driven by our own curiosity, and NPCs telling what to do isn’t clumsy quest exposition but someone trying to deceive us. It’s a game which has as many options as we can find.
It isn’t, of course.
Deus Ex’s freedom was impressive relative to its genre and my expectations, surprising on the first and second play when the boundaries of its systems and story aren’t clear. Beyond that, the limitations are felt. But it still has a fun world to sneak through, wonderfully daft and pompous cyberpunk conspiracy schlock, and a cast I enjoy meeting and messing with.
I still believe in the dream – and feel enough of it when I play that I still return.
Alec: I’ve played bits of it many times since, particularly the first couple of areas, but I’ve never played the whole thing through again. It seared so many images and, frankly, emotions into my mind at a particularly impressionable age (late studenthood, hungry for smarter versions of the same activities I had always enjoyed) that, on the one hand I don’t need to replay it at all. On the other hand if I did replay it, I risk erasing lingering memories of roads not taken and vast possibility spaces by seeing its limitations all too clearly.
Deus Ex really did change the world. That doesn’t mean it can still change it in 2017.
Thief II: The Metal Age (2000)
Looking Glass Studios
Sequel to Looking Glass’ sneak ‘em up granddaddy Thief: The Dark Project, but which switches the theme to something more Victorian than medieval and doubles-down on both the scares and the stealth.
John: Adam is right that The Metal Age is amazing too.
Adam: Why is it better than the first one? Well, it’s the best sequel ever made, that’s why. It’s a brilliant continuation of the first game’s themes and a bold continuation of its plot. How many games take an already unique setting and then say, “what would it look like after an industrial revolution?” for their second game?
It’s not as strange as the first game, and that’s a point against it because it leads to less variety in the levels. But it also means there aren’t as many levels where I’m reminded that thieves are a D&D character class, which leads to Looking Glass dropping some dungeon-crawling into my street-level sneak ’em up.
Bungie’s latest, Destiny 2, is mostly about teaming up with friends and perfecting the art of sci-fi shooting and looting. But, while Halo had a strong deathmatch core, it’s the scale of the world and the singleplayer campaign that cement its place in our list of greats.
Brendan: I will never stop loving Halo even if you bounce sharp rocks on my head. The original introduced a kind of dance to the dude-shooting formula. Throw a grenade, loose a few rifle rounds, duck behind a rock, pistol-whip a grunt in the nose, leap out as the grenade explodes, pick up a plasma weapon, finish off the stragglers.
Today, this is a slow and cumbersome dance compared to the endless sprint of CoD or the gunghoism of nu-Doom. But the art form of the Halo gunfight is still the template against which I judge shooters. Even Destiny, as smooth as it is, doesn’t replicate the joy of quickly picking a weapon off the floor mid-fight so you can dissolve the shields of an angry elite. You have to earn your weapons instead. In the later games of the Halo series and in the subsequent Destorush, I feel Bungie lost their way. Halo’s bullet-ballet survives more noticeably in the likes of Titanfall 2’s campaign of wall-running and robot kissing.
But I still pick it up from time to time, and still adore its most memorable moments. The plasma-hot landing on the island beach, the fight through the snow in a tank, the trip back to your crashed capital ship. Most scarily, the swampy introduction to the Flood is both a fun tribute to the marines of Aliens and a horror moment in its own right. The accusations of it being repetitive (a number of levels are re-skinned and re-used) are fair, yet that doesn’t bother me. I’ve happily repeated the entire game dozens of times.
Adam: I’ve never loved an FPS vehicle as much as the Warthog and I probably never will.
Alec: The magic of Halo is that it simultaneously felt like being stranded in a lost and lonely (and quite beautiful) place and like being dropped right into the middle of a raging war. I’m not sure there’s much else to capture that same sense of magnitude. Perhaps it is now impossible – perhaps this just happened to arrive at the last juncture where the abstractions of limited technology still enabled our imaginations to fill in the gaps rather than notice the flaws.
There are many games set on the battlefields of World War II but Combat Mission is the greatest tactical depiction of the eastern front. Building on its revolutionary predecessor, it offers intelligent slow-paced play, excruciating tension, and the possibility of glorious victories.
Tim: WW2 tactical gaming doesn’t get
much any more exciting than this. A good sixty-second Combat Mission turn generates tension and drama as energetically as a liberated Normandy wine cellar generates laughter and oblivion. The game’s WeGo turn structure is partly responsible. Because both sides plot orders at the same time and then watch helplessly while those orders are simultaneously executed, the CM practitioner is never so busy clicking and adjusting they can’t savour and sweat.
Sophisticated spotting mechanics, unpredictable AI and brutally honest ballistics help with the nerve fraying too. Is that farmhouse as deserted as it first appears? Are there Panzerfaustists among those pines? Will that StuG decide to scuttle down the same alley it scuttled down the last time I played this scenario? When even a mighty King Tiger can be KOed by a single well-aimed shell or rocket, every vehicle advance is an adventure.
Second-generation CM is prettier, more realistic and more flexible than Beyond Overlord, Barbarossa to Berlin, and Afrika Korps, but as it also tends to be fiddlier, more heavily scripted and less generous, some dinosaurs like Yours Truly still prefer the original trio. Improbably the games even work when pressed into service as play-by-comment co-op battle sims.
Bethesda Game Studios
The best of The Elder Scrolls? Bethesda’s RPG series is a behemoth, with millions of devotees, but it still divides opinion. Particularly when it comes to picking the best of the bunch. For us, it’s not all that difficult though. Morrowind it is.
Alec: A quality shared by every game I’ve put forward for this piece is that I immediately picture particular scenes from them whenever their names are mentioned, and those scenes are invariably ones of peace and solitude. Very few action scenes or even character moments have lodged in memory in that way. In Morrowind, it’s the bridges over the river in Balmora that I see, and will always see. The water bifurcates the town between rich and poor, and as such crossing a bridge means making a choice: are you going to fraternise with the elites, or be one with the people? This split makes Balmora feel so much larger than it perhaps it, so much more rife with promise of potential: all these quests, all these stories to uncover, all these people to help or people to rob.
Other Bethesda games have had far more populous towns, with far more quests, but something makes Balmora feel alive and functioning in a way Imperial City or Wildhelm doesn’t, not quite. It’s just there, oddly unostentatious for all the life it contains, quietly getting on with being a small oasis of dusty survival in a deeply strange land.
Perhaps that it’s: Balmora feels real because I didn’t expect Balmora to be there. Staggering into it after what felt like hours in the mushroomy, desolate outlands of the province made it feel precious. Made it my home. It is often said that later Bethesda games have not matched Morrowind, despite any number of improvements to combat, graphics and plots and dragons, and, truth be told, I never quite know why it is that they feel less satisfying. But I know this: I never made a town in any of them my home in a way I did Balmora. I close my eyes and sure, I see Oblivion’s trees and Skyrim’s mountains, but I don’t see specific places. When I dream of Morrowind, I dream of Balmora.
EVE Online (2003)
Whether you think of it as the MMO that proves there’s life beyond the questing and repetition of World of Warcraft and its siblings, or whether you think of it as that one game that you love to read about but will never play, you’ve probably heard of EVE Online, even if you haven’t played it. That’s OK. You don’t need to play it to love it.
Brendan: There’s a feeling EVE instils, and it isn’t awe at the back-stabbing, or delight at the war-mongering, or amusement at the space station-stealing. You can get all that outside of the sci-fi MMO simply by reading the countless tales of skulduggery which regularly emerge from this game’s dark womb, like disgusting babies. No, there’s another side to it – the frightening rush of being a frontline pawn.
I’m talking about flying in a fleet. It’s hard, you have to learn the lingo of your fleet commander, the player who’s in charge of the roaming ball of pilots and wannabes (I actually had to take classes with the in-game group Eve University in order to understand the directions a commander gives). But once you understand the basics, you can get into adrenaline-fuelled group skirmishes. Being the “tackle” is the first role you’ll learn, and I loved it. This means you’re the small, fast ship who disables the thrusters and warp drive of whatever unlucky boat your fleet is targeting.
You are basically a tiny wasp who must lasso an elephant, knowing at any moment you might get swatted into powder. There might be ten other tacklers rushing in to tie up the same giant quarry and only a few of you might survive. Being a tackler delivers the rush of being in the first charge, the fear of being scrapped, the ambivalent joy of being both totally dispensable and absolutely critical. Then again, you might also spend several boring hours warping around the galaxy with no enemy in sight. But that’s war. 90% boredom, 9% death, and 1% heroism.
One of the most fantastic licenses in the world, plot developments that made our jaws drop, and plenty of potential to build your own character through moral choices and combat builds. But it’s the characters that make Knights of the Old Republic – for all of its wild wonders, it understands people.
John: For me it will always be about Mission. Poor Mission, so maligned by the masses, so misunderstood. She was 14. A Twi’lek, certainly, but a 14 year old Twi’lek, and still the only perfectly written 14 year old girl in all of gaming.
Clearly the game is to be lauded for more than this – it’s the game that did Star Wars better than Lucas ever has – but it speaks of what made the game so special. Its characters, whether companions or those you met along your interstellar travels, are so amazingly real.
The game is rightly celebrated for the best NPC in gaming history, HK-47. But as someone who’s spent many years being a youth worker, who’s known his fair share of fantastic 14 year olds, Mission was so wonderfully truthful. Yes, she was annoying! Guess who else is annoying! But she was also brave, and scared, and dubious, and excited, and rude, and witty – she was complex in a way that so few gaming characters are.
Grand Theft Auto is many things. An open world crime simulator, a collection of stories tied up in references to movies and TV shows, a multiplayer sandbox, a modder’s playground. Rockstar make incredible interactive cities and picking the best is tricky, but we’ve gone with the gang warfare of San Andreas.
Alice: Grand Theft Auto’s crimeworlds are the most lavish of video game toyboxes. I’ve played them all enough to know the cities like the back of my hand. I know where my favourite cars are, where’s a good spot to lark about, where I can best cause trouble, and where I can escape the rozzers. Mostly I enjoy just driving, taking in the city, seeing what’s going on, and following my mood.
As I’m writing this I’m half-wishing I had said Grand Theft Auto V or Vice City instead but no, San Andreas. It’s big, it’s varied, and it’s got a fun amount of silliness, not to mention a jetpack. But Vice City has those nights and V has those seas and… aw heck, does it matter which? Grand Theft Auto is good video games. What glorious and mystifying monuments to excess!
The Sims 2 (2004)
Sadism simulator in which you make tiny computer people perform mundane tasks, pursue relationships and obtain neuroses of your choosing, and try to make yourself feel less monstrous about it by designing lavish houses for them to live in.
Adam: Life sims come in many flavours, from Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld to Kudos. You could even refer to games like Firewatch as slice-of-life sims if you wanted to. I won’t stop you.
None of them are quite like The Sims though. It’s one of the most successful series, commercially speaking, in all of games. It’s responsible for more modding than anything with a gun in it. The audience is almost as varied as the human race. And it’s absolutely brilliant.
The first Sims game is, in some ways, the closes to a real life simulator. It’s oddly bleak, partly due to the limitations of the tech. Sims live in boxy houses, many of which look very similar to their neighbours, and life doesn’t really happen unless you click a button. It can be a very lonely, drab game.
As I say, it’s a lot like real life.
The expansions made it stranger and more colourful and The Sims 2 pushes further down that path. There is magic and mystery, and Sims are now very definitely Sims rather than people. In the first game, they were called Sims because they lived in a world that also contained other Maxis games like Sim City. They were branded. By the time The Sims 2 rolled around, they were a distinct species. A Sim is not a person and the rules by which they operate are similar to ours, but not the same.
They poo and wee and eat and sleep, but they don’t have sex. They Woohoo. It’s a euphemism, yes, but it’s also a mark of how the series has changed over time. Jobs have become increasingly aspirational, neighbourhoods have become larger then smaller, but always strangely utopian. They’re not quite hipster and not quite gentrified and not quite white-picket everywhen – they’re not even entirely American. They’re Simmish. A cartoon sort-of pretending to be similar to reality but always playing by its own rules.
I wish there were competing life sims in this style and I’m amazed that there haven’t been direct competitors over the years. I also wish The Sims 4 had embraced the radical design of The Sims 3, with its living neighbourhoods.
The thing is, The Sims games aren’t really sims at all in one sense. They simulate very few things beyond the house you’re looking at right now. The wider world is mostly static rather than a living, simulated thing. The Sims 3 tried to change that and it was partly successful, though it was visually unappealing and technically demanding.
The Sims 2 remains the pinnacle, then, and what a pinnacle it is. It’s brilliant. If you’ve never played it for whatever reason, you’ve missed out on a very wonderful thing indeed.
Alec: I feel the first one holds more power, to be honest. There’s that much more abstraction to it that I find I can project personalities and relationships and goals and beliefs and emotions onto its Sims in a way I couldn’t quite in 2 (or beyond), as sequels showed so much more of their thinking. I would be fascinated to visit the alternate reality where The Sims’ more coldly simulatory aspect was the guiding thrust of a sequel, as opposed to the more cartoonish, comedy people route The Sims 2 IRL went down.
World of Warcraft (2004)
Blizzard tend to dominate any genre they put their mind to and with World of Warcraft, they not only created a massively multiplayer RPG that is still going strong today, they set the template that many other studios would work within.
Richard: Before Legion, I probably would have let WoW fall off my list. Instead, I feel about as reinvigorated as Blizzard seems to have been while crafting what is easily their best expansion pack since Wrath of the Lich King, and for my money, the best Warcraft expansion ever.
It’s not just that the premise raises the stakes to whole new levels, feeling like a desperate struggle against an implacable enemy, but that the whole team seems to have challenged themselves to go bigger and better and more imaginative than ever before. Grappling around Stormheim. The new open levelling system. Dramatic dungeons that range from the usual tank and spank stuff to riding spaceships to other planets, and then invading them.
Excellent ways for lapsed players to catch up mid-expansion. Not every new idea is a winner, but I haven’t enjoyed Azeroth so much in years, or been as excited to see where Blizzard take things next.
Alec: I would put first-year WOW onto this list without a shadow of a doubt. I used to think that made me sound insightful, as though I and I alone had noticed that confusion and slow discovery made for a better MMO than did constant activity with zero downtime Then there were the fan-run OG WOW servers, and now there is even official WOW Classic, and clearly I am just one more nostalgia vampire. But I shall say this nonetheless: whatever it may be now and whatever it may become, Dun Morogh will always be my home.
Tim: With every passing year the gap between virtual Hurricanes and Spitfires and real ones narrows. Flight models sharpen, silhouettes refine, cockpit functionality increases. It’s a heartening trend when considered in isolation. It would be progress pure and simple if the price of more faithful flyables didn’t always seem to be less crowded skies and less interesting campaigns.
Rowan/A2A weren’t so fixated on recreating Mitchell and Camm’s legends that they forgot to recreate the battle that made them legendary. In BoB2 German bomber formations regularly fill screens and desiccate mouths. You point Merlin-engined mounts at Luftwaffe locust swarms aware that every He 111, Ju 88 and Do 17 downed will make Operation Sealion slightly more unlikely.
The dynamic campaign engine that spawns sorties is, in effect, a sophisticated standalone wargame. If you choose to you can spend the entire battle in the ops room RAF Bentley Priory monitoring and orchestrating. But that would be madness – you’d miss out on thrilling sky skirmishes that often feel like they’ve been plucked straight from the pages of period pilot memoirs like First Light and Gun Button to Fire.
Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (2005)
There have been two sequels since but Civilization IV still stands tall as not only the finest game in the series that Sid built, but quite possibly the greatest strategy game ever made.
Alec: It’s a hard life, being a sequel. They need to simultaneously make their players feel as they did when they played the originator of the series in question and do something meaningfully new. “Not as good as in the olden days” vs “it’s boring because it’s too similar.” Humans are awful. Civ IV is the rare sequel that emerged victorious on both fronts. I’d enjoyed – i.e. ‘played for hundreds of hours’ – everything that followed the original Civilization, but II, III and Call To Power never had the freshness, that sense of being presented with a whole world to somehow take control of. They were Civ With More Bits On.
And then IV made me feel totally different, from almost of the first bar of its optimistic, Lion Kingy theme tune. Not ‘here are a collection of mechanics and features you must figure out in order to slowly win this videogame’ but rather “here is a whole new world, this precious blue and green pearl, offered to you, to explore and to tussle over.” It’s not just that Civ IV had a friendler interface and rethought a few key elements that previously had been subsumed by feature creep: it offered a planet with charisma, a place that seemed to live rather than be merely a representation upon a dusty map.
Subsequent Civs have not achieved this: there no was no love at first sight, and instead I played them until so knee-deep in objectives that there was no way I’m bailing out. Civ IV, though: I wanted to be in that world from the moment it began. Civ IV made me feel like Civ I made me feel. Amina.
Adam: There’s a reason I put this in the top spot of our 50 favourite strategy games. Civilization runs to a very specific formula – it’s a race through history. You have all of these different civs trying to get to space, or to control the planet, or to be the most culturally significant force on the planet. The objectives vary, and new ones have been added in different iterations of the game, but the pattern is the same. Start with a settler, end with an empire. Fight, talk, trade, research and build along the way.
I like every Civ game to one degree or another but IV makes smartest use of the formula. It doesn’t deviate too much, adds just enough layers, and in its fully expanded form has what I remember as being the most competent AI in the series. That’s part of the balancing act, I think; making sure that the game isn’t so complex that the AI either ignores parts of it, smashes straight into the hurdles and brick walls of new features, or blunders through, cheating as it goes. Civ IV’s AI is far from perfect but I thoroughly enjoy playing against it.
More than any of that though, Civ IV still gives me a sense of wonder. All of the Civ games do really. I’m a sentimental sort so seeing all of human history happening before my eyes does make me think, “there’s some bloody good stuff in that there history, isn’t there?”, and sometimes I still manage to feel pretty good about what my little people have achieved even when the nukes start to fall.
Wadjet Eye Games
Latter-day point and click adventure, which mashes noir with the supernatural, plus plenty of character-driven storytelling as well as all the wild stuff and humour. There’ve been five Blackwell games in total, beginning with 2006’s Legacy.
Richard: Yes, I’m including the whole series here, because I can. Blackwell was arguably *the* adventure that reignited my love of the genre during the dire 2000s, and watching the series go from strength to strength was a genuine pleasure. Like almost everything with the Wadjet Eye label on it, it’s a series that sidelines cynicism in favour of compassion, warmth and a belief in humanity, and all of it wrapped in a ground-level tour of New York that only a New Yorker could offer. The final chapter may go big for its ending, but it’s in those small stories that the series quickly found its heart, and its place in gaming history.
Adam: Joseph Mitchell’s essay collection, Up In The Old Hotel, is one of my favourite books. It’s like discovering a time capsule that tells you about a city, the people in that city, and the attitudes they held and the lives they lived. Mitchell shows up as a character in the Blackwell games and it’s his presence, and that devotion to place, people and history, that makes Wadjet Eye’s series such a delight for me. There’s a whole supernatural mythos constructed through the stories, but I enjoy the ghosts and otherworldly events as a lens through which history can be seen. And it’s a very human-centred approach to history, putting personal stories above cultural moments.
Dwarf Fortress (2006)
Dwarf Fortress may never be finished. It’s a freeware roguelike/management sim that has so many layers of complexity, you might need a spare fortnight if you want to learn how to play. Come back six months later and chances are, an update will have made it even more complex. Whether or not you have the time and patience to dig into its depths, there are few games more intricate.
Graham: Do you need to play a game to love it? I’d argue no, and offer Dwarf Fortress as proof. You don’t need to play it to glean enjoyment from it via its detailed patch notes and the umpteen excellent after action reports. You don’t need to play it to appreciate that it exists, decades into development with decades more to go.
But I have played it, and if you can overcome its interface – there are guides, tilesets and third-party tools that will help – it is every bit as good at generating stories as those articles above suggest. Heck, you don’t need to even brave the complex management mode to access them – hop in the wholly accessible roguelike mode and just walk around. Take some quests, get into some scrapes, enjoy the wonderfully vivid descriptions of combat wounds and strange monsters.
Or if that’s still too much, try the testing arena mode in which you can spawn any creature from the game’s vast bestiary and watch them fight each other without you needing to provide any input. And if that’s too much, simply generate a world and read about it in the encyclopedia of detail that spills forth afterwards. There are endless ways to enjoy Dwarf Fortress, just pick one.
Adam: Some days, I’m convinced that Dwarf Fortress is objectively the best game ever made. What else can boast the complexity in terms of individual creatures and their functions and thoughts? What other game creates entire worlds and histories from scratch whenever you boot it up? (OK, some do, but they’re all following in the footsteps of the dwarves)
Then there are the days that I think that actually the interface is too obtuse and then I wonder if I actually enjoy playing Dwarf Fortress or if I just enjoy the idea of Dwarf Fortress.
The truth is somewhere in between, of course. Dwarf Fortress is an incredible achievement; in terms of the craft that has gone into it alone, it is surely one of the most impressive labyrinths of code ever created purely to entertain. But in some ways it has been surpassed by RimWorld, a game that says “what if Dwarf Fortress but science fiction?” and then says, “also you can actually play it without getting a doctorate in Dwarf Fortress beforehand.”
But I’ll always return to Dwarf Fortress. And I’ll always be amazed that it exists at all.
Brendan: Any time someone brings up the Musk-endorsed theory of our universe being a computer simulation, I involuntarily think of Dwarf Fortress. If any artificial intelligences deserve to be given rights, it’s the poor mountain dwellers of this frighteningly detailed game. They have suffered so much.
Microsoft Flight Simulator X (2006)
ACES Game Studio
Tim: You could insert the line “Those raised on Microsoft Flight Simulator are likely to be disappointed by [aspect X] of…” into any sim review ever written without altering the credibility of that review. More self-contained hobby than passing play-it-and-move-on fancy, this genre benchmark was encouraging modding and generating expansion packs long before alteration and augmentation became a cornerstone of PC gaming.
If it’s feather- and fur-less and plies real skies, there’s a very good chance it’s available for the staggeringly cosmopolitan Flight Simulator. The range of free and payware flyables combined with seamless global scenery itself enhanced by thousands of add-ons, means you can spend a lifetime flitting about in FSX and its prettier, more powerful descendents Prepar3D and Flight Sim World, and not get bored.
Whether you want to sight-see, roleplay, practise, time-travel, build a business or simply escape for an hour or two with the aid of a murmuring engine and some cotton-wool cumulus, FSX will happily oblige. Summon a storm and arrange a few systems failures and a game that can relax like a cup of hot cocoa or a doze by a crackling log fire, can brow bead as effectively as any war title.
The first-person shooter as political parable and retro sci-fi horror story. BioShock’s setting, the underwater city of Rapture, might be the star, but Irrational’s masterpiece has more to offer than ruined art deco glory.
Brendan: BioShock has suffered from success. So much has been written about its politics, its opening, and its twist that most of us have forgotten how good it was at something simple: making you a frightened, gibbering baby. Rapture is a horror setting, an unsettling and claustrophobic place that feels less like a city and more like the inside of a dying whale. The scripted moments in which enemies aren’t pouncing at you, but simply acting crazy, are what make this haunted house of a game stand out. A woman laments into a pram, her shadow cast against the wall. A doctor pants as he operates on a corpse. A couple dance to gentle music, unaware of your sneaking footsteps. Yes, you are going to kill them for dancing, because their dancing is TERROR.
Graham: Sure, Brendan is right, but also: the opening! Extreme praise for BioShock upon release was met by a similarly extreme backlash, and my enthusiasm was tempered by the latter. It’s an easy game to pick apart. Yet any time I play through its opening, I’m under its spell from “No Gods Or Kings, Only Man” onwards. It’s easy to forget since BioShock became a formula, but Rapture really was a thrilling world to explore – layered with ideas, visually inventive, and littered with excellent writing. And the combat? It’s not as bad as you remember. It’s fine, and if you prepare for each Big Daddy fight like the boss battle they’re meant to be, it can offer a great deal of satisfaction.
Adam: The combat is fine but the combat in BioShock 2 is better than fine! It doesn’t have that opening – it’d be impossible to repeat – and it doesn’t have the shock of the new, but I think it’s a better game. Or more enjoyable to play, at any rate. But that’s not to say BioShock isn’t a great game and if Rapture is the great achievement of the series, all credit has to go to the first in the series for that. I sometimes forget how brilliant it is because all of the parts I don’t like have managed to lodge themselves into my memory and all of the parts I do like only resurface when someone reminds me of them.
So, yes, the opening. The setting. The creepiness. The twist.
Alec: I feel bidirectional guilt about Bioshock. On the one hand, how completely a certain sect of us fell prey to hailing it some new dawn of gaming, some confirmation of long-held but rarely proven beliefs that videogames were grown up and intelligent. If someone who did not share that belief walked into the room while you were making a man get gruesomely stung to death by magic bees, that argument is hard to maintain.
We haved talked a lot about BioShock’s wondrous opening, but I think that too is part of the problem: feeling that those first ten minutes prove our point. On the flipside, we whined hard about messy final boss fight, plot holes and loose threads and mechanical morality, and that has left us in a situation where we have to be defensive when praising the game.
I don’t want to be defensive. I don’t want to hail BioShock as a new dawn of gaming. I want to say that BioShock is a pretty good shooter with a best-in-class theme and top-flight level design, but it fell victim to many ancient and silly videogame tropes too, which keep it from masterpiece-of-the-form assignation. I want to say that all that is OK, and that enough of BioShock is unforgettable enough that I no longer feel guilty about how carried away we all got about it, from both directions.
GSC Game World
2007 first-person shooter set in an alt-reality post-disaster Chernobyl and environs. Rival human factions, competing for wealth and power, are as deadly and chilling as the twisted monsters that roam its blighted yet beautiful landscape, while the game takes a semi-sandbox approach that means both freedom of movement and a world that, to some extent, does its own thing regardless of your interventions.
Quite simply, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the ideal form of the first-person shooter as far as I’m concerned. Huge open worlds, terrifying claustrophobic indoor environments, tranquil moments beneath glorious skyboxes with wonderful weather effects, shoot-outs that are often tense and horrifying, but sometimes glorious and triumphant, creatures that hunt and live and travel, NPCs who take shelter from murderous storms and cower from gunfire.
I often imagine what the future of games might look like. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. often comes to mind.
Alec: I somehow forgot to nominate STALKER myself, and sure, it’s because my memory has more holes in it than Officer Alex Murphy, but it’s also – hear me out here – because STALKER transcends mere best games ever lists. STALKER is eternal. STALKER is life. STALKER, it is taken for granted, transcends almost all else – crucially, in execution as well as possibility. Even its brokenness, in writing and in meaning and in mechanics, all meshes perfectly with its unmatched essence of maudlin strangeness.
BioShock is often a go-to piece of evidence for how even action games can push the form to new echelons, but for me, it’s STALKER that is our proof. STALKER made a place and made it feel real and made it feel as exciting as it was deadly, and it is really, truly a place I still see in my dreams.
Gas Powered Games
Real-time sci-fi strategy at an absurd scale, fought with hundreds and hundreds of tanks, planes and robots, and with a camera that would pull out and and out and out and out until your way was shifting patterns of dots moving across continent-sized landscapes.
Graham: I used to play it with a colleague in our lunch break, just the two of us against six of the game’s hardest AI. “Bullshit,” says the Supreme Commander players among you: there’s no way you could finish that game in a normal lunch hour. You’re right, we couldn’t – we’d pause and minimise the game for the afternoon, then resume at 5:30pm and play into the evening.
After years of doing this, I was playing on my own at home one day. I noticed that some of my buildings back at base were being zapped to pieces by some sort of laser. I traced the source to a flying unit, selected some of my vast numbers of planes, and sent them to attack it… Only I couldn’t. This flying, laser-firing enemy unit was a Novax Defense Satellite. It was in space, it turns out, far higher than my planes could reach. I was stunned. I had played Forged Alliance for a couple hundred hours, yet here was a unit I’d never seen before.
No other strategy game contains such magnitudes. If you want micro, you can spend a lifetime building more efficient bases. If you want macro, then there are flying saucers to build that can blot out the sun. If you want spectacle, then every victory is paired with the nuclear detonation of your enemy. If the RTS is currently experiencing a fallow period, it’s only because Supreme Commander Forged Alliance did every single thing better than anyone else and scared all the competitors away.
Burnout Paradise (2008)
Criterion always knew that crashing and smashing was at least as enjoyable as racing. The earlier Burnout games took place on linear tracks and were primarily about getting from start to finish faster than everybody else, but you were encouraged to drive aggressively and collisions were par for the course. Paradise transplanted the racing and the crashing to an open world city, and in doing so found the perfect form for vehicular action.
John: I don’t really care that much about driving games, but goodness me, Burnout Paradise is one of my all-time favourites, and the game I’ve bought the most often on multiple formats. I think, in the end, it’s not really a driving game at all. I think it’s an open-world third-person action game, where you play a car.
The game is replete with flaws, but fortunately (and unfortunately) most of them occur in the opening hour. There’s the glacial opening where you’re forced to sit through a miserably boring and unhelpful intro sequence, there’s bloody DJ Atomica, there’s endless interruptions as it tells you things you already know when you just want to smash stuff, and there’s the incessant repetition of Guns n Roses’ Paradise City, a song I have grown to deeply loathe. Oh, and all the menus are garbage.
And yet. And yet, what a game it is, what a joy once you’re past all that awfulness and just set free to smash yellow fences and red advertising, drive enormous races, explore in the hills, and chase down evil enemy cars until they’re dead. It was a prototype for the map-of-icons that became too ubiquitous since, but delivered it so splendidly, so relentlessly, and nothing that’s mimicked it since has managed to recapture its glory.
Graham: I agree with everything John just said, which is terrifying.
Adam: I don’t have much to add on the subject of Burnout Paradise, though I love it dearly, but I just wanted to say that my favourite Person In A Fast Car game is probably FlatOut. And after that it’s probably Carmageddon 2. That probably means I shouldn’t be allowed to have all that many opinions about racing games, doesn’t it?
Randomly-generated permadeath platform game, in which you descend ever-deeper into a monster’n’treasure-filled cave system, using an array of gadgets and explosives to keep your bobble-nosed not-Indiana Jones alive. The most successful Spelunky runs are the stuff of legends.
Graham: The actual best game ever, this list’s secret number one. Spelunky is a roguelike platformer (the one to blame for all the others) where every element of its design perfectly fits together, even the bits that seem to break the other bits.
My beloved jetpack, for example. It’s possible to discover it at random in the early stages and it completely changes the shape of the game if you do. It’s powerful enough that it makes any platforming challenge in the game trivial. Finding it is like Christmas morning, as spike traps and man-eating plants that previously seemed so perilous can now be gracefully flown over like a bird. Yet this platformer survives the removal of its platforming. For starters, you will die anyway – perhaps bumping on a flying enemy, or being hit by a rock you didn’t realise was being periodically vaulted into the air by a jump pad. There are always more challenges in Spelunky.
Your next life is possessed by a single thought: I need to get that jetpack again. And you can. In among all the deaths, the struggle to master each new area, the long journey necessary to finish the game, or to get any of its secret endings, Spelunky has just slipped you a new secondary goal: get to the black market and buy or steal a jetpack. Far from breaking the game, this overpowered toy has given you a new source of motivation. By the time you manage to get the jetpack again, you will have encountered half a dozen other new potential goals, each one offering a different way to play the game. And each death will have taught you something, made you laugh, and been entirely fair.
I’ve been playing Spelunky in one form or another for seven years and I’m still finding new ways to appreciate it. That’s why it’s my favourite game ever.
Adam: Is it the secret number one, as Graham says? Nah. That’s Invisible, Inc.
Spelunky is probably the most perfect game on this list though. It’s controlled chaos that you can master, even if it seems far too erratic to ever fully control. The important thing is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you master it – Spelunky is all about having a blast, a few minutes at a time, for the rest of your life.
Alec: Obviously I dig the hell out of it, but something in me was resistant to making it my religion, as I saw it become for many of my peers. I think I need there to be an ongoing sense of discovery in the games I hold closest to my heart, but in Spelunky that soon gives way to a need for mastery instead. After a while, I found that… not dull, but not quite fulfilling enough for me. It is an impeccable design with lessons to teach almost all games, but it does not quite make my soul sing.
John: The secret number one is Thief.
Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
At their best, BioWare make RPGs with a superb sense of place and character. The first entry in the Dragon Age series shows the studio at the peak of its powers.
John: It occurred to me the other day, as I was playing Divinity: Original Sin 2, that I have this encyclopaedia of Dragon Age knowledge in my head, and nothing to do with it. This wealth of lore, this extraordinary sense of place, this connection, with a land that feels like it doesn’t exist any more.
I spent 120 hours playing Origins, before even including any of the DLC or the expansion. This was a game BioWare had been making for at least a decade, and it contained that depth, a brand new world that was so crisply delivered and detailed. For me it feels as though it ended with Awakening, the expansion, the sequels as if they belong to something else – somewhere else.
It was watching a Dwarf cast magic that made me realise. Dwarves can’t cast magic! It all came back to me, Origin’s lengthy side story about the young dwarf who wanted to embrace magic, defying her ancestry, defying the religious orders, to be the first. And it was like falling backwards into water, remembering Dragon Age, remembering that whole world, and desperately wanting to be there again. Gosh, I want to be there again. Dragon Age: Origins remains the RPG I loved the most – even more than Planescape – and so much of that is because it was a place.
League of Legends (2009)
Like Dota 2, League of Legends is a phenomenon and its impact is far beyond what happens on the screen. It’s a culture, a sport and, for many of us, a completely different way of looking at games.
Pip: I have decided that I didn’t want to pick between League of Legends and Dota in the end because that feeds into the concept that they exist in this either/or relationship. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy and value both for different reasons. League is the MOBA I play most often at the moment and part of that is the range of official game modes I can pick from which makes it easier to suit a game to my mood or to the available time. The pro scene has a completely different structure to that of Dota’s and allows me to scratch an itch somewhere between following a sport and following a soap opera.
There’s also a sense of scale attached to the game which has been electrifying at live events because of the sheer numbers of players and spectators it attracts. It’s this strange katamari of fans and corporate intentions and community affinities and professional skill and design choices and living games – as a player it’s fun to engage with, but as a writer and journalist it’s endlessly fascinating to tug at those threads and see how the machinery is running.
Deadly Premonition (2010)
SWERY’s detective RPG is shot through with supernatural horror, but there are technical horrors to contend with as well as the things that go bump in the night. It’s odd, divisive and clumsy, but there’s nothing else quite like Deadly Premonition.
Alice: The best games are often unstable. Full of energy and enthusiasm for one of their sides, they neglect the other and the whole thing becomes lopsided. Deadly Premonition is the wonkiest of the wonky yet one of the very best.
I first played Deadly Premonition on the sofa with flatmates and friends drifting past. They’d pause to watch, ask what it was, comment that it looked awful, then lean against the wall or perch on a sofa arm and keep watching, clearly not intending to stay but unable to leave.
“Okay, but what is this?” they’d ask as our FBI agent protagonist muttered to his imaginary friend about Richard Donner movies, received bonus pay for shaving, swiped cigarettes from a dog’s kennel, hung out with local cops, beat zombies to redeath with a stolen guitar, solved Sokoban puzzles in a supermarket’s stockroom to earn a loyalty discount, spied on residents through their windows, chatted with his imaginary friend about punk bands, fished for trading cards and dinner, drove townsfolk home, bought ghost tour maps and listened to spooky stories, built his trading card collection to impress a gunsmith, read his fortune in his morning coffee, explained grisly details of serial killings over dinner, and slept in a graveyard after a feast of stolen green tomatoes.
“No really, what even is this?”
Deadly Premonition is an open-world RPG about a series of ritual murders, the FBI agent investigating them, and the residents of the small Pacific Northwest town the trail leads to. So far, so Twin Peaks but it finds its own feet once it lets us loose to poke around. It is such a warm game with such heart, believing in people with all their quirks. And god, it even makes a hokey horror plot touching, exciting, and surprising.
Not only is Deadly Premonition good in spite of its wonky side, its best bits feel even stronger for the contrast. When you’re behind the wheel of a crapmobile, going 55 at full pelt and cornering like a lilo, a conversation with your imaginary friend about The Ramones is all the more delightful. And as terrible as the combat in its survival horror sections is, it wouldn’t be the same with good action. Even the inhumanity of its NPCs, mannequins who emote with shared melodramatic stock poses and don’t even acknowledge you ramming their car, makes their character shine.
This tension and pain makes it buzz: how can a game this bad be so good?
Unfortunately, Deadly Premonition is also technically unstable. It needs a mod to change resolution options and, for me, crashes every hour or so. That instability, I could do without. But I always fire it up again after a crash.
Adam: Alice has said it all. All of the really important stuff, anyhow. I would add that no other open-world RPG has made me so aware of the limits of its NPCs, while also making their behaviour just credible enough to give me the sense of being part of an uncanny nightmare with its own weird logic.
Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Fallout has come a long way since its debut in 1997. The first two games in the series are classic isometric RPGs, still among the best ever created, but Obsidian’s open world take on this particular post-apocalypse is not only the greatest 3D Fallout game, it’s the best of the lot.
Richard: Look, I love the 2D ones. Got that? Good. But New Vegas is by far my favourite Fallout game. I love its Wild West atmosphere and tense politics, and that fusion of the dusty open trail and the more civilised parts of the Wasteland full of stories and intrigue. The music. The old world meeting the new, and the sense that’s missing from the Bethesda games, that people are actually building something instead of just staring in horror at 200 year old ruins as if the bombs only just fell. (Seriously people, take the damn skeletons out of your bathtubs and learn how to purify your water – it’s not that hard!)
New Vegas is the best of all Fallout worlds, never too serious, never too flippant, and yours to exploit. And then of course, there’s the DLC. Old World Blues in particular is nothing short of a masterful piss-take of mad-science. If I could change anything at all, it would be to make the Strip a little flashier. But never mind.
Adam: Like Richard, I still adore the 2D Fallout games (Tactics aside), but New Vegas isn’t just my favourite Fallout game, it’s my favourite open world RPG and my favourite Obsidian game. Load up some mods, particularly this favourite of mine that gives you a random start in the world, and you can lose yourself for weeks.
Dark Souls (2011)
Our favourite RPG is, of course, one of our favourite games. Brutal, strange, inventive and beautiful, Dark Souls is a grim delight.
Brendan: Dark Souls is like Dark Souls but — hang on, I don’t need to do that comparison this time!
Dark Souls is an adventure game. I don’t mean that you point at a skeleton and click to remove its tibia. I mean it’s an “adventure” in the true sense of the word. There is hardship, risk, and death but, ultimately, perseverance. It’s better than the sequels because you had to earn the right to fast travel, you scurvy undead. This seems harsh to many, but that refusal to rely on a magic shortcut also ensured that most of its dangerous landscape was sublimely-designed – a labyrinth that would make Mervyn Peake panic and go hollow. Every crumbling ruin, every dank jungle, leads back to the point of origin. Every death, a return. To know each path and palisade in Lordran, each demon, dragon and dog, is to have woken up from a Borgesian nightmare and found yourself smiling. Every. Thing. In. This. Game. Not you Capra Demon. Is. Great.
Adam: Dark Souls takes the entire concept of dungeons, as all of those other fantasy RPGs understand them, and tears it to pieces. Instead of going down, you’re often going up, or sideways, or through maze-like warrens. The architecture of its worlds (because I’m bringing in the whole PC trilogy now) is like its characters – hollowed out and broken.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dark Souls a horror game, though I wouldn’t argue with those who do, but the series certainly understands dark fantasy better than any other I can think of. It’s post-apocalyptic dungeons and dragons, and it has my favourite RPG combat system.
Alec: There exist exactly two essential states of humanity: before you’ve played and understood Dark Souls, and after you’ve played and understood Dark Souls. I existed in the former category for much longer than many of my peers, and feel into the trap of slightly sneering at is as masochism porn for show-offs. Then I finally played it in earnest, broke through the wall of immediate suffering, and found that precisely zero suffering lay on the other side of it – only achievement and insight and satisfaction.
There is no going back now that I am someone who has played and understood Dark Souls, and indeed my entire view on videogames is altered by it. It would happen to you too, if you can only stop staring at it with mingled dismay and cynicism. It is not, really, that difficult: it’s merely that it has lessons to teach.
Alice: Dark Souls taught me a patience I had struggled with in games. As I bashed my face against bosses and monsters, I learned to take it slow, breathe, think, and stay calm while cutting through this wonderful hell. It ended up one of the most calming games I’ve played in ages. Well, mostly. I won’t pretend I didn’t start cussing in Blighttown.
It is so many things to so many people it’d be impossible to cover anything near the whole scope of Minecraft. Here are our personal memories and tales.
Brendan: The world’s most famous Infiniminer clone is very different today but I still remember it for being the splendid isolation sim I’ve always wanted. Everyone remembers their first Minecraft house – a mud hut that became a castle, a stone cottage on a hilltop. My proudest creation was a wooden cabin on a small isle somewhere on RPS’ own server.
Far from the cities and skyscrapers and other players, I built a farm of reeds on a sandbank and lived peacefully by the water. I spent days constructing a big tree (in the days before the naturally big trees) and beneath the hollow of this “redwood”, I built a library. I’ve gone looking for this island cabin and its secret store of unreadable books multiple times but I suspect it has been lost to server wipes and the passing years. It remains the only home I have ever owned.
“The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain–not in Keats’s sense. Beginners, not unnaturally, do the same–I did myself. They want the startling view, the horrid pinnacle–sips of beer and tea instead of milk. Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
As it is in the Cairngorms, so it is in Minecraft.
Adam: I’ve been scared. Miles from home, both laterally and in terms of the depths I’ve descended into.
I’ve been proud. Looking back at a trail of houses built along a route I built on a private server, each more impressive than the last. The eras of my education in building blocks.
I’ve been sad. When I switched off a shared server for a two player game for the last time, the person who had been my building buddy no longer with me.
I know people who only play Minecraft. It’s every game to them. It makes perfect sense.
Alec: Minecraft was always a beautiful game, but especially so in the year or so when it was merely very popular, and had not yet exploded into the mad cacaphonies of colour and explosion and invention that accompanied its ascension into global phenomenon. Whack the draw distance up to max, find the highest point on the map, watch the sun rise and the sun set and imagine all the possibilities that lie just over the horizon. A whole world on your computer: the dream games have for so long chased. Minecraft was one of very few to truly achieve it. Its success was inevitable.
Portal 2 (2011)
Valve’s second first-person-shooter-as-physicsy-puzzle game, blending joyfully inventive teleportation brainteasers with richly comic storytelling. The thing about Portal games is that they feel like real adventures through a wonderful and deadly place, as opposed to simply a series of discrete, puzzle-filled rooms.
Richard: Ah, those halcyon days when Valve made games. They were pretty good at it. I kinda wish they’d continued. Lots of games have tried to ‘do’ Portal since the original, which only makes it even more impressive just how much Portal 2 stands out as the best. It’s the perfect example of a game that knows exactly how long to stretch its gimmick without outstaying its welcome, and still a high point for perfectly timed comedy.
The passing of time may have neutered specific moments like ‘The Bit Where I Kill You’, and constant repetition and cake jokes have done to many specific gags what it took generations of university students to do to Monty Python. Under all of it though is a puzzle game geared to make you smile and feel smart like no other. And hell, who doesn’t still want a portal gun?
Adam: I once got in an argument down the pub about Portal and Portal 2. This taught me two things:
1) There are apparently people who VERY STRONGLY feel that Portal 2 diluted the puzzly goodness of Portal 1, with too many contraptions, too many gags, and too little attention to use of space.
2) I need to go to better pubs.
Before that broadside hit me, I’d thought everyone just accepted that Portal 2 was the superior game. Of course I was wrong. There is no such thing as consensus when it comes to something as important as the ranking of games. But thinking about it later, I realised that I love Portal 2 for reasons that others might find irritating. And that’s absolutely fine. They’re not wrong. It does take the comedy of the first game and stretch it to breaking point, and it does spend a lot of time playing with fluids at the expense of portals. Sure, the portals are always a necessary part of the solution, but they’re often sidelined.
None of that mattered to me. I think it’s one of the best stories ever told in a game, not only because it is genuinely witty but not without pathos, but because it very cleverly uses the layout of the labs you’re exploring as a form of narrative architecture. You travel up and out, digging through the past and coming toward an understanding of the present. Structurally, it’s as smart as almost any novel, and it has much better pacing than the vast majority of games that are entirely focused on storytelling. It’s a masterpiece.
Hidden Path Entertainment / Valve Corporation
Multiplayer deathmatch has been a cornerstone of PC gaming since the days when lugging a computer to a LAN party was the best way to play with friends. Now that we’re all connected and can team up or digitally shoot one another without moving from our desks, seventeen years after its debut Counter-Strike still delivers some of the best team-based shooting around.
Graham: My parents were pissed when they got the phone bill. I’d played Counter-Strike so much that the dial-up internet charges were around £120. My pocket money was docked for five months to pay it back. Did I care? I don’t think I cared. Sorry, mum and dad.
Counter-Strike has always been great. It was great when the character models had no shoulders. It was great when you could muck around with terrible vehicle physics in Jeepathon2k. It was great when you could win by killing a single unarmed player in the Assassination mode. It was great when I had a 300ms+ ping and played with foul-mouthed Swedes three times my age in a clan, and it’s great now whether you’re playing Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Source or this, Counter-Strike Global Offensive.
CSGO contains everything the prior games did, more or less – and mostly more, since it contains modern modes like Gun Game and modern contrivances like matchmaking. But at heart I love it for the same reasons I loved the original. For the feel of the M4A1 as I burst-fire at enemy heads; for the window you can snipe through near CT spawn on cs_office; for the asymmetric thrills of defending and attacking on cs_assault; for the excitement of being the last person alive on your team; for the rush of killing the bomb planter and defusing with mere seconds to spare. For a thousand joyful micro-experiences the game has given me over the past 16 years. Here’s to 16 more.
Adam: I’ve played a thousand complicated strategy games and yet it’s the FPS games that always feel far too clever for me. It’s a fool who thinks they’re all about twitch and map-knowledge. That’s a big part of it, yes, but there are particular parts of the brain, and particular ways to learn how everything fits together, that I’ve never been able to grasp.
Quake was the last FPS I really got a handle on in multiplayer. I’ve enjoyed others since, sometimes for months, but I’ve never felt like I understood one, right down to its bones. Counter-Strike and Overwatch are the ones that tempt me. Overwatch is shiny and new and many of my friends play it. Battlegrounds has already got its hooks into me, but it’s less about shooting and more about all the things that happen in between the shooting. Counter-Strike, though, feels like the perfection of a style I already know.
Crusader Kings II (2012)
Paradox Development Studio
Five years old and still receiving regular updates, both free and in the form of DLC, Crusader Kings II is now less about crusades and kings, and more about all of medieval life. It’s the best grand strategy game for people who don’t play grand strategy games.
Brendan: There’s nothing like imprisoning your son’s wife on a trumped-up charge because she’s leading a faction of men trying to undermine your absolute power. And there’s nothing like your son getting very very annoyed and starting a rebellion in the south of the country. And there’s nothing like all your military leaders suddenly switching sides because they’ve never liked how cowardly you are on the battlefield. And there’s nothing like the mercenaries you hired abandoning you right before a crucial skirmish because you can’t afford to pay them while your son controls the richest parts of the nation. And there’s nothing like your son marching to your capital and besieging it until you are captured and thrown in a dungeon. And there’s nothing like dying in the dungeon under suspicious circumstances and then magically embodying the very same son who brought all this to pass, possessing him like some terrible phantom of Dynasty. There’s nothing like releasing your wife from prison.
Oh wait. History. History is like that.
Adam: It’s not even the best strategy game in this collection of brilliant games, but it’s my favourite. You can pick apart the UI, the periods when very little seems to be happening, the lack of detail in certain areas and the overabundance in others, and a thousand other things. But what you’re left with, no matter how much you pick away, you’re left with stories. Your own stories.
Crusader Kings 2 is, quite simply, the greatest dynamic story generator I’ve ever encountered and I’ve played it more than any other game, ever.
Legend Of Grimrock (2012)
There have been many RPGs fuelled by nostalgia in recent years but none more successful at capturing the magic of the past than Legend of Grimrock. That’s partly because it’s focused on parts of history that most games don’t touch – this is the successor to Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder rather than Baldur’s Gate and the early Elder Scrolls.
John: I’ve picked my favourite games many a time over the last couple of decades, but I’ve never made a sentimental choice before now. I’ve not picked games because of times they’ve represented, nor those I played with, but rather for the game itself. Until this one.
Which isn’t to say Legend Of Grimrock isn’t a bloody brilliant game, because it absolutely is. I thoroughly enjoyed its sequel too, but the original is my pick, and it’s because of my dad.
My dad died last year, a shock sudden death of a really great man, and it still doesn’t feel real to type it. But I’m so delighted that in 2012 I convinced him to write this series of articles about Grimrock. Now, if you were to pick a game that my dad loved above all others, it’d be Skyrim. Then UFO: Enemy Unknown. But it was Grimrock that was made special by the process of his chronicling it for his son’s site. It echoed games we’d played together when I was a kid, Dungeon Master, Eye Of The Beholder, Stonekeep, and the like, and our reforging those moments over a similar game decades later was very special.
It was only last month that I was able to bring myself to re-read what he’d written, and they’re fun, funny, silly tales about a game that undeniably deserves to be in any decent list of greatest PC games.
Adam: I hadn’t realised how much I missed this kind of grid-based dungeon crawler until Grimrock came along. It’s marvellous and made me realise that even though I was fine with people chasing the Baldur’s Gate train for a hit of nostalgia, that had never been what I wanted when I considered updates to the games of yesteryear. This is what I wanted.
Alec: There’s a school of thought – an outspoken and often vicious one – that RPGs have entirely lost their way and the only salvation is to return to the values and designs of the past. I don’t agree that this is the answer, but I will admit to feeling diminishing returns from recent Dragon Ages and Mass Effects and even from Pillars of Eternities and especially from ARPGs. Grimrock is the halfway house for me: that element of doing the hard work of mapping and memorisation yourself, but without its being swamped by needless complexity and repetition. It revisited old values without actually being retro about it. It should have opened the door to many new explorations of the first-person puzzle dungeon, and I pray that might yet happen.
Thirty Flights of Loving (2012)
Shortform game that presents every spy movie you ever loved or imagined, but cut-up into breathlessly effective short scenes that ask you to provide your own context.
Alice: Smash cut and flash back through a spy-fi adventure filled with intrigue, love, marriage, action, and regret in only fifteen minutes. Most video games (and songs, books, films..) should be one third shorter but Thirty Flights doesn’t waste a moment while still letting pauses linger. Five years later, games are still plodding through “And then… and then… and then…” and Thirty Flights is still fresh.
Alec: It is an eternal and baffling mystery that, subsequent to this, Brendon Chung was not handed the keys to Bond or Bourne or some spy-world all his own but with gazillions of dollars attached to it.
Dota 2 (2013)
The game that made many of us frown while we tried to work out exactly how we should pronounce both Dota and MOBA (do they rhyme? I think they rhyme), Valve’s in-house sequel to a community-created Warcraft III mod is one of the biggest games in the world. And one of the best.
Pip: This is an odd one for me. It’s one of my “best” games but right now I’m on an extended break from playing it. My MOBA pendulum has actually swung to League of Legends, but I’m including Dota as well because it was the first MOBA I ever got into, it monopolised my time, brought me a lot of joy, and was also instrumental in meeting so many people as well as forging those encounters into meaningful friendships.
I also think that appreciating Dota as my playtime waned, getting to know what I didn’t like about it has helped me make better choices about the games I’ve subsequently spent time with. That’s not to throw shade on Dota, but I think that reflecting on any all-encompassing hobby can help you understand more about yourself. Ultimately the balance in Dota tipped towards stress instead of enjoyment so now I prefer to keep tabs on design decisions and key pro scene events instead of biffing other wizards. And invest in underwater theme maps. I do that too.
Alice: I was right there with Pip, often in the same team, and I agree. I can’t go back but god, those few years were intense.
Trucks and cars are all well and good, but you haven’t really experienced the road unless you’ve driven a bus. OMSI is a great sim and a wonderful period recreation of eighties Spandau all in one.
Tim: OMSI and OMSI 2 lack the polish and scale of the DCS truck sims but completely eclipse them when it comes to physics and sounds. The German people porters that come as standard have characters as nuanced and endearing as any RPG protagonist or adventure game hero. Partly because they’re constantly talking to you as you drive, it’s impossible to use the sim regularly without experiencing moments of total immersion – periods when the line between reality and illusion vanishes like a wiper-erased raindrop trail.
Some of my happiest gaming memories involve a rattling, wheezing MAN SD 200 double-decker and the streets of Spandau, Berlin in the small hours. It doesn’t matter that the passengers are few and stiff-limbed, the overheard conversations imaginary, and the in-game rewards for a perfect, punctual run almost non-existent. OMSI exists to evoke and evokes as brilliantly as any sim you care to mention.
Papers, Please (2013)
At release, Papers, Please was a simulation of life-or-death bureaucracy and moral decision-making in a harrowing alt-reality despotic regime. In 2017, it might just be a documentary.
Brendan: There’s a point in Papers, Please when you stop trying to be good. People you’d once let pass through your border checkpoint with nothing but a sob story are summarily turned away. Families become separated, “suspects” are arrested. You have your own family after all, with mouths to feed and medicine to buy. It’s hard to be kind to a stranger when you’re worrying about the heating bills, especially when that stranger might be a terrorist.
I love Papers Please not only because of the point it’s making but also the way it makes that point. The natural degeneration of humanity via rules, rules, rules. Each act of repression comes piecemeal, and every day you are encouraged to act more barbarous than the last. Suddenly, you are inspecting the genitals of your citizens. You’re arresting people for nothing more than a few coins. You haven’t just stopped trying to be good, you’ve forgotten what good looks like. The only act of dissent you now indulge is “forgetting” to take down your kid’s crayon drawing that hangs in your inspection booth. And should the bosses keep pestering you, you’ll do that too. No game before or since has so effectively demonstrated what a steady erosion of civil liberties looks like, and how it happens.
Adam: I love games where the action on the screen relates to what I’m doing with my hands. Not in the motion control waggle sense, but in the Uplink sense. Do you remember Uplink? It’s a game about hacking and you screen displays another screen. You’re doing precisely what your character in the game is doing, sitting in a chair and interacting with a computer using a mouse and keyboard. I love that. It’s as if your actual PC has become the world’s most elaborate and expensive controller; a peripheral above all others.
Papers, Please does something similar, though with a little abstraction in the clicking and dragging. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better marriage of theme, setting and interface though. That almost makes it a perfect game in my eyes.
Ed Key / David Kanaga
Randomly-generated exploration/music game, in which you freely roam beautiful, pastel island made up from and inhabited by abstract flora and fauna, with a soundtrack created by the sights you see. A bliss-out game if ever there was one.
Pip: I love Proteus. I love going back to Proteus, I love exploring my islands in Proteus, I love that there’s a graveyard in Proteus, I love the chickens in Proteus, I love how it feels to play Proteus, I love that I tried to mod the colours of Proteus when I didn’t know what I was doing and ended up with a sea of blood in Proteus, I love that I then forgot all about that and was dolloped into the sea of blood a few months later when I went back to Proteus and had to roll all of that back. Proteus is great.
John: It was the moment I realised the trees were singing that it got me. This game builds its ambient soundtrack in response to what you see, what you walk past, directly in relationship with you. It captures what makes Proteus so special, beyond what it may first appear to be – a calm walk through some pretty pixelly landscapes. It’s so much more, a connection between you and it developed in every tangible way, until the only word that captures the experience is “elation”.
Alec: We’ve talked many times before about the beauty and profundity and tranquility of Proteus, and all those things are true, but let me be real for a moment too. It’s been a very long time since I smoked weed. Even if that still appealed to me even slightly, it would be entirely unnecessary, because I have Proteus.
Alice: I once visited the perfect island, with exactly what I wanted to see that day. The church sat atop a hill overlooking the sea, the graveyard sprawled across the slope down to the beach, and crabs scuttled around the tiny scrap of land between the beach and the tidal island. It was exactly where I wanted to be. The sun rose and set, chickens beepled by, owls watched from the trees, the seasons passed, and everything was right. I will never return. Every island is familiar, every island is alien, and I know I’ll find another perfect one.
80 Days (2014)
UK studio Inkle’s first venture into interactive fiction was a gamebok version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which wasn’t particularly warmly received, but it was their adaptation of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Books that caught peoples’ attention. They returned to a more literary source with 80 Days and though the Sorcery! games have been excellent, it’s the reinterpretation of Jules Verne’s novel that marks them out as one of the most exciting studios working today.
Graham: 80 Days is a game full of conversation, and romance, and melancholy. As you speed around the globe, taking steampunk airships over Scandinavia, trains across the Russian steppes, and boats across the Pacific ocean, you’ll get into many thrilling adventures. I was captured by pirates, led a mutiny aboard a ship, and incited a revolution in one country, but it’s the smaller moments that I remember most fondly. The mathematician I met who was brimming with hope for her home country, say, or the tender young man in a bar in New Orleans. These brief connections with other people capture what’s so wonderful about travel, and in the process make 80 Days enriching to the soul.
Adam: When we think of the genres that games fit into, we often talk about what the players do in those games rather than the stories that the writers and designers tell. XCOM is strategy before it’s sci-fi invasion, GTA is third-person action before crime and Wolfenstein is an FPS rather than a bizarro black-comedy-grindhouse-war-horror story.
The point is, games are still often defined by their function rather than their settings or themes. So, yes, 80 Days is in the interactive fiction subset of what I’d broadly refer to as adventure games. Perhaps it could be called a narrative game.
But, for me, it’s more than that. It’s almost the perfect form of the narrative game, as far as such a thing can possibly exist. As Graham mentions, it has romance and melancholy, thrills and adventures. It has stories of war and revolution, as well as tragedies, comedies, horrors and laughs.
Its genius is to take a novel, the book that inspired it, and make it into a collection of short stories. Not short stories in the sense that it is a series of adventures, hanging together around the travelogue conceit, but short stories in the sense that each Passepartout is as different as the journey he undertakes. Sometimes he is a dandy and an outrageous flirt, sometimes his heart is shackled to one true love, sometimes he is dignified but downtrodden, sometimes he is the brains behind his apparent master.
Inkle have not just created a great work of fiction, they have created a great work of malleable fiction. It is the story you make, within its rules and game logic, but Inkle ensure that whatever story you’re telling, it’s impeccably written.
Tom van den Boogaart
Walking simulators come in many forms: haunted hikes, mysterious homecomings, sci-fi voyages of discovery. Bernband doesn’t provide a great deal of context. You are in an alien city and you walk (fast) through its streets and buildings.
Alice: Take to the streets, alleys, and walkways of a sci-fi city in the world’s finest tourism game. With your tippy-tappy feet and wiggly-waggly hands, push through the crowds and head out into the night and see what’s going on.
Take the the door to your left and you might join an audience watching a child’s terrible trumpet recital. If you’d gone right, maybe you’d be in an industrial back-corridor wondering what a fish tank is doing in the wall, then a few minutes later find yourself inside it. Or maybe you’ll find a greenhouse with singing birds. An art gallery dedicated to Troll dolls. Bustling bars, crowded cantinas, too-loud clubs, car parks, toilets, alleys with people pissing up the wall, school classrooms, tunnels buzzing with hovercars… Berband has the spirit of wandering through a city with no idea of what you might find and only a vague sense of how you got where you are.
Each area contains only a few rooms and corridors, with key doors whisking you away to new zones. They’re implicit jump cuts, leaving no sense of how far we’ve gone or how we really got there. Gazing out of windows and down from balconies, you might be able to see familiar places from afar but have no idea how you’d get back there. I adore being lost here.
Bernband’s a game I can’t play too often because I don’t want it to become familiar. That quiet alley with a hole-in-the-wall bar needs to remain somewhere I’ll stumble towards with vague memories of the route, where I’m always delighted to finally arrive.
Twin-stick shooter/roguelite/Catholic guilt/poo-horror mash-up, in which titular mistreated tyke Isaac dives through randomly-generated dungeons full of monsters, biological waste and monstrously mutating powers of his own. Frenetic, unforgiving, secret-filled, devilishly inventive and, together with Spelunky, ruler supreme of daily challenge modes.
Alice: Isaac is tea. If I’m not up to much, I’m likely thinking that a cup of tea would be nice. Offer me a cup and I might not always take you up on it but I’ll certainly be glad you asked. Every day at 11am I am thinking: 1) I’d love a cuppa; 2) Isaac’s new Daily Challenge has just gone live.
This did not come naturally. Isaac was initially a mystifying web of things to discover, experiment with, and die to. For a good hundred hours, I bashed my face against the roguelikelike, delighted every time I got further, beat a boss or room that had troubled me before, or learned another secret. Building the knowledge of how its squillion of items, enemies, rooms, hazards, and secrets all interact was a joy.
700-odd hours in, I’ve finally ‘finished’ it and the mystery is long gone but I am still playing every day. Some runs or rooms are still challenging, some combinations and tricks still delight me, and I have a wholly satisfying time crying on fetuses and poos until they die. It’s fast, it’s daft, and it’ll often let me become wildly overpowered if I put the effort in.
Though Isaac’s latest (and last) expansion has changed the blend in ways I don’t entirely enjoy, I’ll certainly not turn down a cup if you’re putting the kettle on.
Adam: This is my Pokémon. I want to catch ‘em all – every rusty body augmentation and soiled item of clothing – but I never will. I play it almost every day, for ten minutes or so. However long it takes to die. Sometimes five minutes, sometimes forty five.
It began as a challenge, now it’s relaxing for the most part. Until I find myself on a good run, the happenstance of random drops from those bajillion items giving me hope and strength and power. Then I become tense and determined. I cannot fail and become a nothing little baby again.
But I do and I quit. Until tomorrow.
If you were to ask even the smartest of puzzle game connoisseurs to describe great puzzle design, they may well fall back on the words of Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”. Hexcells is the pinnacle of its genre and John knows exactly why that is.
John: There just isn’t a better puzzle game.
I don’t say that flippantly, and I think I can put modesty aside and say I say it with some degree of authority. Because believe me, I play puzzle games.
I play them every day. I subscribe to puzzle magazines you can’t buy in newsagents. I am the person responsible for bringing the second best ever puzzle game, Hudson’s Puzzle Series Vol. 5: Slitherlink, to Western attention. I am obsessed with the form, a lover of all the greatest examples, the Picrosses, the Killer Sudokus, the Pic-Pics… And Hexcells is better than all of them.
It’s outrageously smart, and over the course of the three games in its trilogy, stupendously involving. It, like the best puzzle games, is about learning techniques, tricks for understanding the current situation and spotting the next available move. It never relies on planning seventeen moves ahead, it never, ever relies on guesses, but always on cold, wonderful logic. The only downside of Hexcells is its design cannot be replicated on paper, meaning it’ll never become a copied and ubiquitous puzzle like so many of its contemporaries.
NEO Scavenger (2014)
Blue Bottle Games
There had never been anything quite like post-apocalyptic hobo simulator NEO Scavenger until…well, until NEO Scavenger. And there’s been nothing quite like it since. It’s setting should feel familiar but every aspect of the design makes this game feel weird, hostile and utterly compelling.
Graham: I beat a man to death and stole his trousers and plastic bag. This might seem like small items to exchange for a human life, but you don’t understand. I need the plastic bag to carry my empty plastic bottles.
This is the kind of thinking NEO Scavenger inspires. It’s the best bits of a scripted RPG meshed together with the best bits of a procedural roguelike. There are Fallout-like stories of darkly comic moral decrepitude at the end of the world, including gleaming cities, cannibal fight clubs, secretive factions and much more. There is also a random wilderness in between, freshly infused each time with the excitement of the unknown.
You will die, and a lot, but each one will be a story to tell. The time you fought a melonhead – whatever that is – and ran away, but then he punched you to death in your sleep. The time you traded your only bullets to a stranger in exchange for a cellphone that didn’t do anything, then died when your wooden spear couldn’t penetrate the armour of the next guard that attacked you. The time you ate some bad mushrooms and died from diarrhoea. The time you spent a long, clumsy fight tackling another half-naked man to the ground, punching and kicking and clawing at one another over and over until eventually you got the better of him and won – only to die that night because you were too weak and injured and it was cold after you had to use the trousers as bandages.
Each new life will be an opportunity too, as you select new starting skills to carry with you into the wilderness. Botany, so you don’t eat the bad mushrooms again, for example. NEO Scavenger is funny, surprising, dark, well-written, vast, tactical, and dispenses stories both scripted and not to anyone who plays it for five minutes.
Adam: NEO Scavenger is one of those games that makes me think there might be an entire parallel universe where this is just how RPGs work. It’s so idiosyncratic in its approach to exploration, skills, combat and just about everything else that it should feel much more unusual than it does. But it’s such a confident game that I just go along with it.
Of course I’m chasing this man down and stabbing him with a glass shard, I think, because I need that carrier bag he’s hoarding. And of course there’s an entire settlement full of hi-tech stuff that I didn’t even realise was part of the game for twenty hours or more. Of course.
It reminds me of playing Fallout for the first time, when the world I’d entered felt like it might contain absolutely anything and that I’d never see it all.
I just go along with it. The only reasonable explanation is that NEO Scavenger is indeed the product of a parallel universe where every RPG follows these rules, and somehow it fell through into our reality. I’m very glad that it did.
Brendan: The fights in this are obsidian nuggets of dark comedy, as Graham says. You creep up on someone, and they notice you, so you leap at them. You pull them to the ground, they stand up and try to run. You scramble to your feet and rugby tackle them again. They claw at your head. They stand up again and kick you. You pull them down into the mud. You both fumble, both attempt to regain your footing. Everything is terrible. You’ve lost your knife. Your enemy (he’s got a t-shirt you want) is striking you on the head over and over again with a stick. You’re bleeding. He’s up again, and really laying into you now. This was probably a bad idea. Everything is going dark. Eventually, you stop feeling the blows. You’ll probably die soon, unconscious in the mud. Just another mundane casualty of the apocalypse.
Inch forward, parry, stab, swipe, jump back, lunge, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab. Nidhogg is the lo-fi recreation of every great cinematic swordfight you’ve ever seen.
Brendan: For much of its life, Nidhogg was a mysterious game. I am grateful it now graces machines around the world with its presence (and that a glorious sequel is out). But dramatic fencing duels were not always so easy to come across. For many years it only appeared at gaming events, like ye olde Eurogamer Expo, or among the brawlers of a Las Vegas fighting game tournament. It appeared in clandestine corners of the industry and was spoken about in the admiring tones reserved for rare and endangered animals. One of my fondest early memories of journalising is talking to an industry pal about it at a gaming show.
“I love Nidhogg,” I’d said to him when the game came up in conversation.
To my surprise, he replied: “Do you want to play some now?”
He’d secured a sneaky press build. In the dusty narrative of my memory, his eyes were twitching with anticipation, but that is probably nonsense. But we did end up sitting on a remote bit of the floor, the screen turned away so nobody could see, like a couple of bare-knuckle boxers agreeing to scrap in a filthy alleyway. Years later, I would hold a tournament of Nidhogg in the comfort of my own home. I don’t know any other game I like enough to get a real-life trophy engraved.
Secret Habitat (2014)
An artgame in which you freely explore procedurally-generated islands filled with procedurally-generated paintings created by unseen procedurally-generated painters.
Pip: Secret Habitat is a procedurally generated playground filled with little procedurally generated art galleries housing procedurally generated artworks – each floor dedicated to one “artgorithm” (you can thank Alice for the terminology there!) The effect is this strange world populated by identifiable entities. Not entities in the sense of people, but it’s not a higgledy piggledy thing. The paintings start to feel like they form actual collections with unifying themes thanks to the generation algorithms in play, but they can also take you by surprise if it spits out, for example, four similar canvases and then a fifth that’s nothing like those.
You know they’re related but this oddity becomes something to chew on instead of just another random creation. But the digital playground element of the architecture means you can also clamber about. I disliked one of the sound installations so intensely that I leapt out of a window and ran away from that gallery.
Alice: Where I want to be: trapped in my own personal spooky island arthell.
Some games offer an entire world to explore and to play in, others only need to show us a fragment of a place that is new, old, strange and ordinary all at the same time to make us believe a whole other reality is just beyond the horizon. Cradle is a snapshot of a possible future.
Pip: Confession: I figured that Alice would DEFINITELY make sure that Deadly Premonition was covered in the “wonky but we love it so” area of gaming. Deadly Prem is wonky and amazing and sort of also amazing because of the wonk as well as despite it. Cradle is a similar prospect and I was so afraid it would get left out. It’s a puzzler set in a yurt on the Mongolian steppe. It tells the transhumanist story of you, a sufferer of videogame amnesia, and a cyborg woman who is kind of also a vase. Unpicking the details of the story means sifting through the beautiful detritus of the yurt as well as some visits to an abandoned entertainment park for some incongruous block-based minigames.
I have a real affinity for games which don’t quite work in fascinating ways. This is one of those. It also has some of the most beautiful skies.
Adam:: I almost picked this as well but it was number eleven or twelve on my list. I’m so glad it’s here though. I’ve recommended it to many people and I know that some bounced off it almost immediately, including Jim Rossignol, formerly of this parish.
It gave me everything I wanted from a modern adventure game though. Beautifully, intricately detailed environments, playful minigames that felt just the right side of sinister, and a plot that was never drip-fed and became increasingly alarming as the details emerged.
Cradle manages to tell you about an entire world while only showing you the smallest corner of it. The smallest corner underneath the biggest sky.
Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015)
Brace Yourself Games
Rhythm action roguelikes are rare, so to be the best doesn’t take all that much effort. Crypt for the Necrodancer is the best in that field, but it’s also a hell of a good action RPG in its own right.
Pip: Crypt of the Necrodancer stands out in my gaming memory not because I was any good at it (I wasn’t) but because of how different it was from everything else I’ve played. The rhythm is both elegant and oppressive, leading you into tense dance-offs and carrying with it the risk of tripping over your own fingers as you try to stay with the music. The shopkeeper and his song never fail to raise a smile, although now those encounters are tinged with regret because I didn’t get the shopkeeper plush when I had the chance. His name is Freddie Merchantry!
Adam: It really does have phenomenal music. Beyond that, it’s actually a really good roguelike rather than a fun gimmick plastered onto something that’s secretly quite bland.
Alec Sorta feels like the apex of those couple of years when roguelikebut dominated PC gaming, doesn’t it? This grand and joyful blowout of the top-down, pixelly fantasy dungeon, truly presented as a party: celebrate good permadeaths, come on. Then it felt like it all gave way to more overt mutations, the warm familiarity of brown rock pixel grottos left behind as we moved onto Darkest Dungeon and The Binding Of Isaac and FTL became only more powerful, and by and larger we found aware to other stranger, darker things.
Note: this theory may exist only in my head, but I do enjoy the image of Crypt of the Necrodancer as the disco at the end of the world.
Else Heart.Break() (2015)
Come for the clever hacking that lets you manipulate an entire world, but stay for the clockwork beauty of that world. Else Heart-Break() is home to one of the greatest settings in all of gaming.
Brendan: There are a few cities in games that stay with me – Midgar, the Imperial City, Rapture – but the bit-punk city of Dorisburg is a place where I’d actually want to live. There’s so much colour and detail in this isometric hacking adventure. The streets, clubs, hotels, cafés and parks have countless small items and touches. Mattresses lie in alleyways, surrounded by beer cans. Machines blink and ker-ching in a glitzy casino boat. There are arcade machines everywhere. It fills me with nostalgia for a time when all videogame cities, no matter how limited, were vibrant and exciting.
In Dorisburg, the citizens move around according to their own clockwork schedules. Look, there’s the girl who works in the shoe shop, she’s on her way home. There’s one of the suited agents on his commute to the creepy government building, he’ll be back crossing the bridge again in 6 hours. There’s your co-worker, another soda salesman. He likes to smoke a cigarette here in the town square, in the middle of the night.
There’s a greater point to it all, in that your group of low-poly hacktivists are taking on The Man, and you do end up learning how to manipulate the entire world via a scarily fleshed-out programming language. But without the machinery and detail of this wonderful city, there’d be no reason to hack cinnamon buns to make you more attractive, or alter the code of a weather station so that it teleports you to tonight’s big party. The city of Dorisburg is this adventure’s real heart, and it’s designed to be broken.
Adam: I got to the point when the actual game really begins, when the underbelly of the town is revealed and all of the hacking opens up…and then I stopped playing. Not because I wasn’t having fun but because I was busy. I’d already had enough fun for Else Heart.Break() to be comfortably one of my favourite recent games, just in terms of its setting. It’s splendid.
Invisible, Inc. (2015)
Klei seem to be masters of whatever genre they turn their hands (and minds) to. There’s the cartoonish but grotesque survival of Don’t Starve, the still-in-development managerial farce of Oxygen Not Included, and the side-scrolling stealth of Mark of the Ninja. Nothing beats Invisible, Inc. though, a turn-based tactical game as tense as a timebomb.
Graham: Exhibit B for my liking stealth games about what you do where things go wrong. Invisible, Inc. is remarkable primarily for a different reason though: the information it gives you before you make a decision. Where other stealth and turn-based strategy games work with ambiguity and random chance, Klei’s game of cyberpunk corporate espionage is clear about everything.
Enemy patrol routes? You can see them ahead of time. Vision cones? Perfectly communicated. What’s going to happen if you open that door, hack that terminal, wander in front of that security camera? The outcome is never in doubt, and on most difficulty modes there’s even some facility to rewind time if you mis-click or simply miss something vital.
The trick instead is working out what to do given the situation you’re in. This proves to be gloriously satisfying, particularly when paired with the unique skills of Invisible, Inc.’s stylish cast of characters. Can you combine Nika’s augment granting her an extra attack per turn with Bank’s ability to open doors with a keycard in order to best a guard, steal the loot, hack the mainframe and escape? Probably, if you’re smart enough. And if you’re dumb you can muddle through on easier difficulties and have just as much fun. A supremely well designed game.
Adam: Imagine this.
I have been captured by smugly superior aliens who are so powerful and advanced that they see humanity as little more than a germ. “What,” they ask, using universal translator apps on their Smartest Phones, “evidence do you have that humanity is worth saving from our wrath, which is not so much wrath as it is the kind of idle curiosity that leads a human child to pull the wings off a fly?”
Zipping around above Earth in their craft, I ask them to stop by at some of the great architectural wonders of the world and they guffaw.
“Our babies make better structures out of their toy blocks.”
I show them great literary works and the films of David Lynch.
“Is this what you refer to as ‘arthouse’?” they ask mid-way through Inland Empire. “It is very boring and long and annoying.”
Possibly a bad call, but there’s no accounting for taste.
In desperation, I ask if they would like to play a game.
“Yes,” their leader says. “Among our people, we consider interactive entertainment to be the pinnacle of all artistic achievement!”
Unfortunately, all I have in my back pocket is a deck of cards and the only game I can remember is Gin Rummy. Humanity is doomed.
I’m not saying that Invisible, Inc. would have saved our bacon, but it’s the best turn-based game since Chess, and possibly my favourite game of all time. I reckon we’d have been in with a chance.
Alec: I’m still sore because I was gonna make a stealth-based XCOM, but about cats, and really, what’s the point in even trying when we have Invisible, Inc?
(It’d be even better with cats in, mind you).
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
CD Projekt RED
Third time’s the charm. The first two Witcher games made some waves, good and bad, but with 2015’s third, developers CD Projekt finally found the perfect storm of darkness, derring-do, politics, violence and even emotion, all set within a semi-sandbox world filled with sights both magical and monstrous. Likely to be the standard by which all other RPGs are judged for some time to come.
Alec: I’ve said this already, somewhere in this vast sea of words, but: the one thing every game I’ve picked here shares is that I can close my eyes and immediately summon a singular image from them. For The Witcher 3, it’s one of the vast meadows between villages. Mountains over one shoulder, trees over the other, flowers and shrubs fluttering in the breeze around my feet. If I stay put for a while, the weather will turn, the skies will darken, the heavens will open and heaven turns to hell. I have never felt more outdoors in a game.
And yet: the one thing The Witcher 3 has that no other game I chose has (speaking personally, at least), is that I can remember an event, and a character, and still feel powerfully moved. The Bloody Baron sub-plot is perhaps the most emotionally gruelling mainstream videogame tale I have ever experienced, but what could, in other hands, have been mere body horror with obvious, cackling villains instead becomes a portrait of a profoundly guilty man who knows that he is profoundly guilty.
There is a precise moment at which the titular Bloody Baron, an arrogant, aggressive blowhard who is as pitiless and violent towards his family as he is those who toil under him, breaks. His shoulders slump, the cruel gleam disappear from his eyes, the arrogance and aggression flees from his voice. When he confesses his crimes, his failures, and to the cruelty he never meant to express. The typical blustering, obtuse, mean-spirited RPG lord; so often defaulted to ‘we’re much the same, you and I’ tropes and death-by-combat. Instead, he confesses, he is broken and expresses a sincere desire to atone.
Geralt, the stoic hero of The Witcher game, watches, his stony face a maelstrom of incredibly subtle emotions. My face? My face had more tears on it than even the Baron’s. If you’d have told me a few years ago that a Witcher game – y’know, the ones with the norks and immortal, infertile cool dudes – would do this to me, I’d have laughed you off the internet. Now, I cannot wait for whatever storm this studio will next summon.
Brendan: My favourite character in the Witcher 3 is Drunk Geralt. There’s a scene in the middle of the game where he gets together with two old pals and gets absolutely sloshed. Geralt’s voice is normally a monotone gruff, and I hate this character archetype – the emotionless man – whether it’s a Witcher or a Vulcan, because it is like saying to an actor: “You know all those micro-expressions and vocal ranges you use, professionally, to seem more natural and real? Don’t use any of those.” That’s why this drunken scene is such a relief. Geralt’s normally flat voice gives way to rises and hiccups, giggles and slurring. He becomes, for one short evening, one of the fellas.
It’s a proper HA HA HA LADS scene, with plenty of stupidity. But for me it was the warmest moment in the whole game.
Adam: So much of The Witcher 3 involves following quest markers and red glowing trails. So much of it involves combat that I don’t enjoy all that much. It isn’t doing anything particularly novel and many of the things it’s doing I’ve never particularly liked, but it’s testament to how well it does all of those things that I absolutely adore it. An unbelievable level of craft and artistry makes a style of RPG I often find stale utterly compelling.
Richard: Did it really come out in 2015? Lies! I remember playing it like it was yesterday, and yesterday was a really good day. I’ve already said so much about it, and so much honestly goes without saying. It’s the game that took CD Projekt to the absolute top tier of the RPG world, an open RPG that still manages to keep the focus of far tighter and more linear games, and storytelling that bounces effortlessly from the tragic to hilarious as if it’s nothing. It’s a game that makes you feel lazy, almost to the point of wishing someone, somewhere would just phone something in… and yet that never happens. The main campaign is stunning. The first DLC is excellent. The second doesn’t just end the series perfectly, but is the ending that Geralt deserves in both content and quality.
Alice: The subtlety of Geralt – his sighs, his glances, and his silence – is magnificent. Also, most of the rest is great.
American Truck Simulator (2016)
Most games that put you behind a wheel are all about going fast. American Truck Simulator, and its predecessor, the still-ongoing Euro Truck Simulator, embrace a much slower pace of life. You don’t need to love trucks, or even care about them, to enjoy life on these roads.
Alec I have so many stories involving this blissful, low-pressure driving game, and its journeys through vast scenery that is by turns iconic and bleak, but most of them are variations upon a “I was feeling real low and pretending to be a lorry driver for bit helped me feel better” theme. It is my go-to self-help game: the atmospheric balm of the canyons, deserts, streetlights and freeways, coupled with the reliable Other Place effect of tuning into a random local radio station. But you don’t want to hear about me being Sad McSadpants: instead, here’s a story. I found myself playing ATS in a teeny office space I rent with some friends. Initially, they sneered at this none-more-PC-gaming proclivity of mine, this hopelessly nerdy recreation of a hopelessly boring subject.
Beer is produced.
We now know far more about each other than we did before my two-hour journey across Arizona and California began. About lost loves, lost weekends, guilty secrets, regrets we’ve had a few. We went on a road trip, them and I, a journey across old America – the road, forever the conduit to conversation. We all stared at my screen, turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime, our tales punctuated by gas stations and motels and diners forests and deserts and – well, this is the Great American videogame (only not made by Americans). The next time I loaded it up, they did not sneer. They pulled their chairs closer to my screen.
Adam: Perhaps one day someone will make a game about going on a roadtrip across any of the continents – doesn’t have to be North America – and I won’t need to pretend I care about being a trucker anymore. Not that I do pretend, when I play these wonderful games. The trucking aspect doesn’t interest me particularly – it’s just an excuse to go from A to B, each new job a promise of fresh scenery and open roads.
I’ve long maintained that the best way to improve these games would be to add first-person sections that take place outside the cabin. Let me walk into the motel and the diner, and maybe even let me go and see some of the sights in each city or state. Jalopy has something of that.
But whether SCS intend to make these games for the tourists or not, they have a wonderful way of capturing both the peaceful rumble of long distance travel and the occasional moment of awe as colours spill from the horizon or citylights shimmer ahead as another night on the road threatens to become a new day.
Devil Daggers (2016)
A singleplayer shooter without a huge campaign, complex plot or masses of cutscenes, Devil Daggers is the purest form of first-person combat.
Alice I once played Devil Daggers projected onto the bare stone wall of an underground vault and it felt right. In whichever world Devil Daggers burrowed into ours from, this must be how they — whatever they are — play video games. Droplets of mucus shake loose from the ceiling and shower players while the bassy groans and cackles of skullbeasts make their hive throb. The players welcome this, glad as the glowing juice seeps into their innumerable knuckles to lubricate and hasten reaction times.
When they play Devil Daggers, they’re happy zipping around the arena blasting at soldiers, dodging, weaving, circling, and trying to live just a little longer each time. They’ve formed friendly rivalries with their broodkin, the competition pushing them to try harder and learn a little more. After dozens of hours of play, they look back and realise every challenge was an opportunity, every insurmountable wave of enemies a puzzle to unpick. It looks and sounds generic to them but hey, it’s a satisfying arena shooter.
In our world, Devil Daggers looks and sounds beautiful and dreadful. Skulls are video game staples but the intensity of DD’s skullitude and the scale of its skullbeasts is awesome. The most terrible moment came when I first survived long enough to see the three intertwining bonesnakes and had no idea what to do. They coiled tight around me without touching, bone winding across my screen until I panicked and ran straight into their grinding ribs. Splendid. These horrors are even starker rendered in the style of early 3D, low-res unfiltered textures and wobbling vertices.
And the sound! The real battlefield of Devil Daggers isn’t the bare stone arena we stand on but the soundscape revealing what’s behind us, what’s spawned out of sight, and what’s about to take a chomp out of us. This is all groans and grumbles, roars and cackles, and cutting through it all the fribble of our gun which builds to a screech as it powers up.
God, there’s nothing like it. No other game comes remotely close. I put on my headphones, shuffle closer to my screen, and try to push through to the terrible world this game burst out of.
Stood in the dark vault on that night, the skulls skewed by rough stone, my chest pounding with the bass, and my lungs full of musty air, I might not have scored well but I was finally playing Devil Daggers properly.
Brendan: Remember when we all competed for the best time during our “summer games”? And we all got like 60 seconds? And Alice went on a rampage for almost 3 full minutes? “I hope it’s good enough,” she said.
Alice: Hi, me again. Not to brag, okay, but I take pride in almost being up to five minutes now. Then I see the scoreboard leaders are past seventeen minutes and I know for certain that Devil Daggers bridges our world and theirs.
Adam: Devil Daggers and new DOOM were the games that convinced me I still had enough reflexes to do a shooter from time to time, and that some shooters were worth the effort. Devil Daggers is, I think, the better game of the two.
Alec: Nostalgia culture – the remakes the remasters the reskins the spiritual sequels – is a virus. Sometimes a virus can be a feverish buzz, but most of the time it just keeps you sick. Far more vital, I think, is the esoteric evocation of how we felt when we first encountered the things that stayed with us forever, as opposed to merely recreating their imagery. Devil Daggers is not anything like Doom or Quake or Hexen or anything else: Devil Daggers is only like Devil Daggers. But it makes me feel like I felt when I first encountered the dark and twisted worlds of those games, entirely enveloped within the deadly and demonic places they presented. Gothic immensity, total takeover of the senses with exhilarated dread. That is the bottled lightning here.
After the disappointment of Absolution, Hitman seemed like it’d never return to the glory days of Blood Money. That wouldn’t have reflected badly on creators IO because few series have ever enjoyed days as glorious as the best of Hitman. It’s mixture of intelligent social stealth and Looney Tunes carnage is utterly unique. How wonderful, then, that the magic returned in last year’s episodic masterpiece.
Graham: I like stealth games that are about what you do after things go wrong. I’m not interested in instant fails or unrecoverable situations, or for that matter in perfect silent takedowns. I want panicked murder-farce, as I stack more and more bodies inside closets and behind doors, change outfits a dozen different times, and eventually despatch of my target in a way that ensures they’re immediately discovered three seconds later.
Hitman supports me in these endeavours, and makes me look good in the process. I was initially skeptical of its Opportunity system, which seemed determined to take the improvisation out of the game by showing clearly delineated paths towards each possible method of assassination. But in time I realised that there were so many of those methods available, and so many sub-challenges and restricted special missions that it didn’t matter. Hitman is a menu of murder, and the menu is large enough that just choosing from it feels like an act of creativity on your part.
Sapienza is my favourite level, and encapsulates everything that makes nu-Hitman great. It’s beautiful to look at. The space is somehow compact and sprawling at the same time, bending back on itself in a way that supports close quarters combat, sneaky back alley crimes, long-distance sniping and half a dozen unique disguise-based methods all at once. I’ve played it again and again, just as I’ve played almost every one of its missions again and again. A Hitman game better than Blood Money? For a long time it didn’t seem possible, but here it is.
Adam: Oh, what will become of Hitman? Just when IO had found their flair again after the disappointment of Absolution, they have been cut loose from publishers Square Enix. They’ve retained the rights to Hitman though and if we get a second season as good as this first episodic set of murderous sandboxes, I’ll be overjoyed.
Sapienza is my favourite level as well. It’s a block of Swiss cheese that you tunnel through, occasionally stopping to admire a new sight or to pick of a target.
Hitman can be the slickest spy fantasy you’ve ever played and it can also be a Looney Tunes cartoon. Sometimes the gap between one and the other is a split second.
Alec: Hitman never quite gets the tone right – there is a deliberate comic streak in there, but I think it’s a little bit too trapped under a straight, almost dour face, and it never really blossomed into the brilliant moments of absurdity that I so loved in Blood Money. But I forgive it that entirely, a) because I had given up all hope of ever getting anything like Blood Money again, so something that came even this close was revelatory and b) in terms of scale and possibility, it makes a mockery of Blood Money. Any time I return to one of its levels (with the possible exception of Colorado) I know I am going to have a brand new experience, with a brand new path taken.
It has become customary to wail and gnash teeth when discussing Hitman, due to its publisher bailing on it not so long ago, but here’s the counter point: do we even need another one anytime soon when we already have this act of immense strangling-based generosity?
No Man’s Sky (2016)
A game that promised the world (and a few million other worlds for good measure) and then delivered precisely that. Of course, the exact nature of the procedural generation driving the creation of those worlds and the creatures and plants populating them didn’t satisfy everyone. At the time of its release, the conversation around No Man’s Sky was more about the game that might have been rather than the game that was. Now, a few updates later and with the dust settled, let’s look at the game that is.
Pip:A recent game but an amazing one in terms of its scope and odd beauty. The story of the marketing tends to get in the way of talking about my experience of the game itself because it involves so many caveats outside the play experience, but there’s a reason it’s my third most-played game on Steam. Put simply, I adore the worlds it shows me and the sense of ambition it contains. I still spend hours in there screenshotting rock formations or pursuing weird bouncing animals and feel soothed by the alien-ness of it all.
John: I find my peace with No Man’s Sky in seeing it as something more like an activity than a game I’m playing. I do it at the same time as something else, perhaps watching a TV show on the other screen, maybe listening to podcasts, my attention more there than here. And in doing so, I love No Man’s Sky. Perhaps this is also helped by time allowing me to enjoy what it is, rather than miss what it was meant to be. And what it is remains something extremely special, and entirely unique.
Adam: I still like the idea of No Man’s Sky more than the reality of No Man’s Sky. Part of the problem lies entirely with me though, rather than with the game. Everything that I enjoy about it involves seeing new places and exploring the vast unknown, but I get so hung up on the crafting and survival, playing on the mode that makes all of those things extremely hard to do, that I barely get to explore at all.
Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I realise how limited the creatures and worlds are, so I’m holding back from seeing too much because the illusion would be ruined. Playing on Survival mode means I have to earn every trip from one place to the next, and that makes every new world that much more precious. It’s the difference between going travelling with ten grand in the bank and working in bars to make your way around the world.
I want No Man’s Sky to last forever and it’s not ideal that the best way to do that, for me, is to grind away in a dusty pit for hours at a time. But the fact that I want it to last forever in the first place shows just how much I want to be there.
Brendan: I didn’t like it, but it was responsible for one of the funniest YouTube videos of the year and for that, I am thankful.
Night School Studio
An adventure game with retro teen horror movie stylings, but with real character depth, as opposed to the expected gleeful trash. Stranger Things doesn’t have a monopoly on 80s-themed creep-outs, and the elaborate and moving writing really takes Oxenfree to far smarter and more effective places.
John: It takes some doing to chip your way into my list of loved games. I’m someone very wary of allowing proximity to be confused for timelessness. Oxenfree rocketed into my personal top ten the moment I was playing it, and it’s not shifting.
This is a tale of a group of young people who head to an island for a night’s getaway, a moment in their lives before adulthood entirely takes over, one last-ditch moment of teenagery fun. Peculiar radio signals are supposedly heard if you tune in a wireless nearby, so with a few drinks and a few more years of animosity between them, they head off to explore. What comes next is a masterpiece of writing.
The game shines in the way its speech-bubble-presented dialogue bounces and riffs and sparks and ruffles, amidst a spooky tale that feels at once utterly contemporary and classic. It revels in a sort of Twilight Zone-y vibe as delivered by the most canny of current drama podcasters, a story that’s as much about the end of childhood as it is about inexplicable disappearances, strange underground entrances, and unsettling radio signals. It’s a campfire tale about people who love campfire tales, and it’s a whip-smart game with exploratory freedom, and gripping emotion. An extraordinary thing.
Stick Shift (2016)
A game about driving a car. Definitely just a game about driving a car. Definitely not a game about masturbation.
Pip: I adore how daft and joyfully gay this game is. It’s part of Robert Yang’s second Radiator collection so it functions as part of a “downloadable gay-sex-triptych” alongside Hurt Me Plenty and Succulent. Hurt Me Plenty is a rumination on forms of consent in BDSM and Succulent is a game about watching a man suck what some people call a lolly but which I think looks more like a corndog. Stick Shift is not those things. Stick Shift is about getting your gay car off by working the stick and gradually shifting up through the gears. That’s not to say it doesn’t also touch on important or interesting subject matter, it’s just that – and this is one of the reasons I really admire Robert Yang’s work – it manages to do so while also being deliciously funny and fun.
Alec: This, like pretty much everything Yang makes, is a masterclass in sex comedy. Clearly they’re also smart and boundary-pushing and even politically important (given what a staid form of popular entertainment games can be), but God, if you don’t laugh your arse off while playing or watching this magically lurid masturbation vignette, I just don’t think we can be friends.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)
After years of nearly-greats and not-so-goods, Larian released the game we always suspected they had in them with Divinity: Original Sin 1. The sequel continues their hot streak and is as exciting as anything that’s happened in the RPG genre for decades.
Richard: Writing about games, it’s easy to sound like a cynical bastard, especially when you are, in fact, a cynical bastard. But it’s not always true. I’m incredibly happy to see Larian Studios’ recent success. It’s a company that’s always had its heart in the right place, trying to make Ultima VII level games with some incredible gimmicks, only for struggle with the foundations, or tech, and always money.
With Divinity: Original Sin, all the pieces came together. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is even better – right up there with Witcher 3 as one of the best RPGs in years, a huge improvement in everything from story to character to AI, and a strong contender for that coveted Ultima crown*. Really, the only area it really slips up is the odd way it paths your progress around maps, often with no rhyme or reason. If the next game can fix that, and play like the more open world it likes to present, there really won’t be any stopping it.
(* Ignoring of course that no game can ever match up to the warm fuzzies of something you loved when you were 13.)
Adam: I didn’t feel quite ready to nominate Original Sin 2 but I’m oh so glad that Richard has picked it. It’s not just my favourite RPG in many years, it is, as he says, a true link to the past. But it never feels like a nostalgia act. Instead, it takes all of its inspirations and uses every modern trick (and invents some of its own) to deliver a game that is as flexible, strange and exquisitely constructed as anything available today.
I probably use the word ‘systemic’ more than any person should, particularly when I’m talking about Divinity, but it is an important word. The world of this RPG is constructed to take all manner of complex rules into account, informing everything from the behaviour of NPCs to precisely what will happen to that particular piece of scenery when a cursed fire licks against it. All of those systems seem like the heart of the game, but they’re more like the skeleton. The heart is the writing, the art, the music, all of which can either disguise those systems for those players who don’t care to know how the machinery works, or can be peeled back to allow a look at the innards.
It’s a game that weaves art and craft together superbly, relying on terrifyingly complex coding and scripting, but never neglecting storytelling and character-building. Whenever I have a conversation about it, or write about it, I kick myself later because I forget to mention one of the things that I love about it.
Is it better than my RPG fave Ultima VII? Give me another six months to think about it. It’s that close.
What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)
Story-led explore ‘em up, with a touch of the walking simulators, some extremely light-touch puzzling and an array of breathtaking diversions into the unexpected, documenting the assorted tragic and ridiculous fates of the Finch family. Whenever one of them died, their room was sealed up; in order to accommodate new family members, a new room would be built, making the house increasingly ridiculous. Each room holds a new story, each of which is presented in its own wildly inventive way. Be warned that there is some very upsetting subject matter alongside the wonder, however.
Pip: What Remains of Edith Finch made this list because it’s not one game, it’s an anthology of them – all interesting and all different, each expressing their subject in a unique way. I’ve played anthologies before but this one was so rich – an embarrassment of riches – and keen to explore storytelling. Playing it was invigorating and remembering it is a delight.
Adam: I’ve never quite believed in walking simulators. Not in the sense that I don’t think they exist – they definitely do. I’ve played loads of them. But the likes of Gone Home, a game that I very much enjoyed, always felt like early examples of an artform that hadn’t yet been properly understood. I once told a fellow critic that one day I reckoned we’d look back at Gone Home the same way we look back at early FPS games now, or early polygonal 3d games. It’d date badly, is what I meant, not because of its technology, but because its setting and the way the story ties to the setting are relatively crude. The fiction is great, the home is great, but the connection between the two is limited. It still feels like a ghost train – I walk, I search, I trigger the next phase. Here, not a cackling skellington on a string, but a memory or revelation.
It’ll take years, I said, maybe even a decade or two, but designers will figure out ways to make the act of experiencing an interactive story feel far more engaging and thrilling. It might even be the same designers who are creating games like Gone Home. It probably will be. That’s what I said. That was last year.
This year, What Remains of Edith Finch changed everything I thought about interactive narrative in two and a half of the most exciting hours I’ve ever spent with a game.
Brendan: The Finch tapestry is a captivating cross-stitching of the fantastical and the morbid. Every story Edith tells you as she roams through her ancestral home ends in death or disappearance, but the game can rarely bring itself to call death what it is. People don’t break their necks in a fall or take their own lives, they learn to fly or become kings. Death is only a tragic footnote in a magical story. If ever a game deserved to be called bittersweet, it’s this one. I love that the credits include family photos of the developers as kids. Even this small touch shows that they’ve perfectly understood the tone and theme of their own creation.
Alec: I played this several months after release, presuming it was just another perfectly nice Gone Home-style thing that would occupy me for a night or two and then I’d never think about it again. Now it’s lodged in my head for quite probably years to come. It’s a beautifully human game despite often ostentatious oddity, and it’s also a treasure trove of tiny, very clever, sweet and twisted details that it would probably take half a dozen playthroughs to uncover the bulk of.
That’s it. Your panel were RPS editors, writers and contributors Adam Smith, Alec Meer, Alice O’Connor, Brendan Caldwell, Graham Smith, John Walker, Philippa Warr, Richard Cobbett and Tim Stone.
Didn’t see your favourite game on the list? We’d love to hear about it. Let us know why you love it in the comments below – and remember that there are as many ways to enjoy games as there are games to enjoy. Let’s celebrate all of it.
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