I don't know your name, Man, but you came up to me at Rezzed and said the most surprising thing (for someone who had bought a ticket to a PC games event). You said this: "I haven't played any games since about 1998. I think the last game I bought was Half-Life. What should I play to get myself up to speed with gaming today?"
Caught off guard, I just vaguely gestured at the show floor, and said "uhh". Eventually I recommended you read this website. But wow. Okay. This article is for you.
And, given our audience, possibly you alone.
So. PC gaming right now. The man needs a snapshot. How do we fill him in on the past fifteen years?
Let's see if we can hit the main themes in a single article.
We'll start with where you left off, then.
FOOTNOTES TO HALF-LIFE
Half-Life's great trick was trigger scripted events to take place right in front of you in the game world, capturing your attention and filling the game with drama. It was linear, but the inertia of events propelled you forward. Getting this right was why Half-Life was so compelling, and it's a trick that has dominated not just shooters, but all kinds of games, for quite some time.
To catch up with this trend you'll probably want to play the sequel, Half-Life 2, as well as Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which pretty much wrote a template for how the tricks invented by Half-Life created a modern template for the spectacle shooter genre, which currently takes a place in the PC genre map that is something akin to the action movie in Hollywood. The formula is well understood, and it shifts millions of units. It's a bit shallow, but we try not to judge it too harshly, because so many people have so much fun with it.
To see the other areas that the scripted shooter explored, you might want to look at the Bioshock games. They've taken pretty much the same structure as Half-Life and draped incredible set design over it. They departed from the dreariness of much of what we've become over-familiar with to create games set in parallel histories. And they're quite the spectacle because of it.
Things have, more recently, started to depart somewhat from the first-person script. Take a look at things as diverse as Portal 1 & 2, and the STALKER games for a taste of that.
GUNS AND OTHER ANIMALS
There was another fork in the road that was widening into a highway at around the time you left off gaming, Man. That was the rising popularity of playing games over the net. I don't know how familiar you were with that in the late '90s, but games like Half-Life very much took to the proliferation of broadband connections, and began to support large communities around their multiplayer aspect. If you were gaming in the '90s you would have already seen this happening with games like Quake, but the scene began to mature around specific mods, or alternative games built on the framework provided by a commercial game. Half-Life spawned one of the most important mods of all, Counter-Strike. That was a multiplayer game where a team of terrorists took on a team of counter-terrorists, and they had no tools for negotiation, only guns. I'm not sure if I'd recommend you played that now, to be honest, but it sort of informs everything that we play that has men and guns in today.
If you want to get a taste of the broad spectrum of men with guns online on the PC, I'd say look at Team Fortress 2 – cartoony, friendly, lots of of teamplay depth – and Battlefield 3 – which has a much more serious vision of multiplayer combat, with destructible environments, vehicles, and tonnes of progress-enabling systems – and Arma 3, which sits at the very far spectrum of these things, at where battlefield simulations designed to train real soldiers meets our sphere of entertainment.
Games that exist solely because of the net now make up a huge many-headed hydra of things, which I can't possibly hope to chart here. Suffice to say that one of the games that dominates the world today will basically be incomprehensible to 1998's brain. It's called League Of Legends, and has its roots in a game called DOTA, which was a mod of another game. DOTA 2 turned up recently too, and they're huge, byzantine competitive multiplayer things that are neither strategy nor action. If you want to understand games now, then you should play them. Just don't expect to understand them.
THEIR HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS
Playing online meant more than shooting people in contained arenas of various sizes. It also meant pretending to be an orc. Or an elf. Or sometimes a cat person or a Wookiee. Everquest really kicked off this cycle, but since it came out in March 1999, I'm imagining you missed it. You can't have missed the game which took its level-treadmill, quest-driven, world-exploring, team-up-with-people in a population of thousands template, and then printed money with it: World Of Warcraft. If you have missed that, then you must have actually been in a deep freeze since 1998, because it has had millions of players, and captured the imaginations (and wallets) of the largest number of PC gamers in history. Since you can now play the first twenty levels for free, and those early levels are actually kind of fun, you should definitely take a look, if just to catch up with where the rest of us are. Even if we say we don't like WoW, most of us have played it, and understand its habits.
The most important thing to take from World Of Warcraft is, I suppose, that it's not representative of everything that the online RPG is doing. Sure, it's probably representative of about 70% of the online games you can play these days, but it doesn't do all that much to explore the terrain. If you are looking for games that really start to investigate the potential of having thousands of people in the same game space then I'd recommend the sci-fi plenty of Planetside 2, and the austere and brutal micro-managment spacecraft-collecting game, Eve Online.
LONELY CHOICES, LOOTS WITH FRIENDS
We still have normal, offline RPGs in 2013, too. Sort of, anyway. You'll probably want to see where those went in the hands of companies like Bioware and CD Projekt. Bioware invented a new genre of RPG called Guns & Conversation, of which the best example is probably the Mass Effect games, which in themselves represent the past decade's best attempt at an original space opera saga. For fantasy things, try Skyrim.
To really contrast now and then, though, you should probably play The Witcher 2. It is a game that falls quite some serious distance from the PC RPGs you might have seen in 1998, being heavy on action, and completely full of graphics.
It seems fair to say that this entire genre of wizards and numbers (as well as the ones I previously mentioned around Everquest and World Of Warcrat) was influenced by another trend, too, which was the popularity surrounding Diablo. Yes, Diablo from 1996. Remember that? Turns out it would create its own genre, know as the “action RPG”, and spawn an endless army of imitators. It's worth playing Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 to see how that game idea has been carved by a million tiny chisels into a supersonic version of its original self.
YOU SHOULD TOTALLY PLAY A TOTAL WAR GAME
They're quite the thing, and meld both turn-based strategy and real-time battlefield strategy into one shambling titan of a game. The latest one is called Rome 2, and it will be out soon. If anything represents one of the pillars of PC gaming in 2013, that does.
SPORTS GAMES AND THAT
Sports and racing games still exist. They look fifteen years better than they did when you last looked at them. I can't personally recommend any.
THE OTHER BLOCKBUSTER
I could write, and probably have written, several essays-worth of material on the other thing that is going on in PC games right now, and that's confusingly bannered under the “indie” movement. It isn't really a movement, and it doesn't have banner at all. Instead it's a sort of change in focus away from big studio development of the kind that brought you Half-Life, and back to a lot of smaller groups and individuals finding ways to make and sell games themselves.
This has been characterised by some level of experimentation. It's hardly all original stuff, but it is certainly diverse, and has been increasing moment over the past decade. The highlights of this journey are many, but particularly interesting waypoints are Darwinia, which created a strange sort of tactical adventure out of Tron-like visuals; Braid, which was a highpoint in a scene of mechanically inventive rehashes of the platform game; World Of Goo, which showed just how broad and silly the puzzle game can be when in the hands of artists, and then there's, well, there's Minecraft.
Minecraft is the great outlier. It has sold eleven million copies on PC and was made largely by one man. None of those copies came in a box, either, which is another thing which underscores this whole change in how games are made and consumed in 2013. Now that the need for packaging has evaporated, you can shop for and buy, more games than ever before, including Minecraft and games like it. The fact that eleven million people paid online to get hold of Minecraft is proof that nothing is certain: it's a game about making and unmaking a world out of blocks that might actually have seemed crude in 1998.
The march of time, you see, doesn't mean everything happens when it should. It just happens, and then we try to digest it. If you play nothing else to sample where games are in 2013, play Minecraft.
IT'S YOUR TURN, RENAISSANCE
Perhaps the weirdest thing about 2013 is that you won't just recognise some of the types of games from your gaming in the Nineties, you'll even recognise the names. The past is back, and people want to play it. Only they don't actually want to play the past as it was, but as it could be, if it's properly formatted into the visual and aesthetic standards of now or the future. What I mean is: we're currently in the thrall of the most intense wave of nostalgia the gaming world has ever known, and that means remakes. Old game types are being dug up and redone for 2013. Games that were buried in the 1990s somehow live again, raised from the dead by new trends in fund-raising and the hunger for things as they were the last time you played PC games.
Even point and click adventures are undergoing a renaissance, for some reason. /I know/, but I didn't say 2013 was actually a better place than 1998, so you have to take the rough with the smooth.
Probably the most important of these modern reworkings is XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which is a virtuoso modernisation of the brilliant turn-based series you might well be familiar with. If you want to know where everyone's brain is right now, you cannot afford not to play that.
And now, mysterious yet inquisitive Rezzed attendee, I am spent, and must throw open the floor to our readers.
What should this chap be playing if he's to catch up with the past decade and a half, readers?