If there is one thing that I’ve learned from writing in the video game industry it is that people go bananas for top ten lists. Since console generations don’t come along every day, I thought I would take this opportunity to reminisce on the past few years of gaming history and write a list. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present to you the top ten video games of the previous console age.
10. The Stanley Parable
The strength of The Stanley Parable isn’t in its gameplay, which consists only of movement, or aesthetic, which is that of a bland office building. No, the strength of The Stanley Parable lies in the high-caliber writing and the fantastic voice acting by Kevan Brighting as the Narrator. The Stanley Parable explores the issues of game design in a hilarious fashion and makes its points by responding to whatever the player does. The difficulties of creating for an interactive medium are so clearly illustrated by what players decide to do that it is hard, or even impossible, to imagine The Stanley Parable in any other medium because so much of what it has to say is told through a player’s interaction with it. And that is something that I have never experienced to such a degree with anything else in this medium.
9. Sid Meier’s Civilization V
It is by no means an overstatement to say that Civilization is one of the best turn-based 4X strategy franchises on the market. While Civilization IV also came out during this generation, the dramatic shift away from squares in favor of hexagons and the elimination of unit stacking opened up more interesting combat scenarios and paths to victory. The end result of revising these mechanics was a much more fluid and exciting game relatively free of massive stacks of units entrenched against each other. Smaller empires became more viable and more mechanics were added later through hefty expansions that deepened the gameplay and added unique paths to victory such as espionage and faith. Civilization V strikes a great balance between the various methods of victory: combat, culture, diplomacy, and science. Other turn-based 4X games that follow in Civ V’s footsteps will surely be taking cues from this shining example of strategy for the foreseeable future, which earns Civilization V a place on this list.
8. Red Dead Redemption
One of the biggest problems inherent to the design of open world games has always been effectively conveying impactful stories. Allowing players to goof off or pursue side quests between important plot points often diminishes the effectiveness of an open world game’s storytelling. Red Dead Redemption seems to be the exception to the rule. While there are sidequests and plenty of distractions to keep the completionists busy for years, the main focus of Red Dead Redemption never wavers from protagonist John Marston’s quest to escape the specters of his checkered past and save his family. That dedication to story eventually pays off with what ranks as one of the best video game endings ever that is shocking, sad, anger-inducing, and ultimately satisfying all at once. The ending alone would be enough to elevate red Dead Redemption to a position on this list, but toss in solid third-person shooting mechanics and leaving it out would be a crime.
7. BioShock Infinite
I’m just going to come out and say it: BioShock Infinite had the most interesting narrative of any first-person shooter released this generation. Some people might argue that the first BioShock was better in some respects, but Infinite had so much more to offer on a narrative level that it makes the original look like a pale reflection. Themes of racism, isolationism, overzealous nationalism, religious persecution, predestination, and more pervade the game and open it up for interpretation on numerous levels. Furthermore, carrying on BioShock’s tradition of meta-comments on gaming and gamers, the ending of Infinite not only takes into account all of the players of BioShock Infinite, but also retroactively the players of the first BioShock and provides a new perspective on the material in both games. On top of that, Infinite’s city in the clouds was astoundingly beautiful which provided a great contrasted with the horrific violence and bigotry that lurked just beneath the surface of Columbia. Remember, there is always a lighthouse.
6. Mass Effect 3
The culmination of the Mass Effect trilogy was the ultimate payoff for players who had spent years of their lives, two games, and several packs of DLC building up to the final conclusion of a galaxy in peril. After carrying over the same Commander Shepard from game to game along with the baggage of all the difficult decisions made along the way, the finale carried so much meaning for players. Mass Effect 3 was better for all the time spent developing the characters in Mass Effect 1 and 2. The ending left people so vehemently divided because they cared so deeply about the universe of the series and the ending wasn’t what they expected. Was it bad? Personally, I enjoyed the game before the extended ending was released and I enjoyed it afterward. The game was more than its ending, though. Mass Effect 3 was a vast improvement over the first and second entries in the series: the story was more focused, the sidequests were more interesting, and combat was drastically improved to the point that an enjoyable multiplayer could be built around it. More than any of that, though, I loved Mass Effect 3 because after all of the choices I made as a player over the course of five years, the story came to feel personal, like it belonged to me. And, well, that was special.
Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece was one of the first big indie hits and became a symbol for what indie developers could achieve in a modern market via digital distribution. What many people found appealing about Braid isn’t hard to see: fantastic art design, interesting time warping mechanics, and an abundance of clever puzzles. At first glance, Braid appears to be a traditional 2D platformer in the vein of Super Mario Bros. However, anyone who believes Braid to be nothing more than a pretty game with cunning mechanics is sorely mistaken. Tim, Braid’s protagonist, becomes the most interesting element of the game by shrewdly playing with the commonly accepted conventions of the platforming genre. By the time the credits roll, Braid has introduced the concept of the unreliable narrator to video games (or would that be the unreliable avatar?) and left a feeling of uncertainty. I’ve played through Braid multiple times and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it, but I am sure that it is one of the most influential games of this generation.
Portal is the textbook example of near perfect game design in the modern era of video gaming. Its simple-yet-complex gameplay slowly escalates in difficulty along with a gradually revealed antagonist who is delightfully sadistic and entertaining. The game world similarly reflects the gameplay design by going with a deceptively simple aesthetic. Sterile environments surround the player initially, but eventually cryptic warnings in nooks and crannies start to peel away the benign façade. One of the best parts about Portal is that it knows not to overstay its welcome. The game is long enough to be satisfying and feel like an adventure, but short enough so that the mechanics of the portal gun don’t start to feel overused or gimmicky. Portal isn’t just one of the best games of this generation, but it can hold its own as one of the best video games ever made.
The minimalistic, “less is more” approach to game design has always appealed to me since Ico made waves back in 2001. Thatgamecompany has taken a similar design philosophy to heart with fantastic titles like Flow, Flower, and ultimately in their Opus, Journey. Journey is a simple platformer with some minor points of open exploration and only the barest hints of online play, yet its sophistication and subtlety set it so far ahead of most games that it feels transcendent. The animations and art direction are so well crafted that every time you jump you can feel the joy radiating from your character or the tense fear of being hunted. The musical score of Journey can touch even the stoniest of hearts and dredge up considerable emotion. All of these are great, but one of the most remarkable aspects of Journey is the inclusion of drop-in online co-op. Other players online can walk into and out of your game, drastically altering the experience with their presence. Some people are friendly and helpful, others lone wolves with no time to spare. Journey can be funny, sad, angry, lonely, and joyful all at once. Quite simply, Journey is a beautiful game in every sense of the word; a game that everyone should play at least once in their lives.
Developer Supergiant Games is one of the most amazing developers to spring into being this generation. They have a knack for crafting amazing games with a signature artistic and musical flair. Bastion’s quality is obvious from the first minute of gameplay. Playing through the shattered fragments of Bastion’s world is like stepping into a fantastical storybook unlike anything you’ve ever read. The similarities to a story book are further reinforced by the compelling narration that follows players’ every move, emphasizing the simultaneously wonderful and sad fairy tale feel. The amazing soundtrack by Darren Korb is a huge credit to Bastion and works with the other audiovisual components to enthrall players. The story takes unpredictable turns as it gradually unfolds and ultimately leaves players with a heartbreaking choice. Bastion is a fairy tale that spellbinds players and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
The sheer genius of Minecraft is that it gives players a set of tools and then unleashes them within a world that is practically infinite. That world, and by extension the game, can become pretty much anything the player wants it to be. Feel like building something without having to worry about pesky things like deadly monsters or dangerous falls? You can play in a creative world where you have the ability to fly and have access to infinite resources. Do you want a more adventurous experience? Start a survival world and brave the horrors of night and Nether to find the gateway to The End. Content update after content update have been added to the game for free since its release, leading to more blocks, more monsters, more… everything. While offline Minecraft certainly shines, playing online with friends and tackling a colossal project or deciding to journey together into the unknown begets a spirit of camaraderie and excitement unrivaled by many triple-A releases. On top of that, Minecraft’s simplistic aesthetic strikes me as incredibly beautiful, to say nothing of the endless supply of texture packs which add new visual effects. The massive popularity of Minecraft speaks to how much it resonates with its players, and while popularity doesn’t necessarily indicate quality in any form of media, in this case it is not hard to see why so many people have fallen in love with the title. No other games this generation come remotely close to what Minecraft offers its audience: The chance to unlock pure imagination.
Feel free to tell me how wrong I am, agree with me, or even better share your own lists in the comments.