The Greatest Games: BioShock (2007)

BioShock (2007)
Developed by 2K Boston (Irrational Games) and 2K Australia

Would you kindly give me a moment to reflect before diving into BioShock itself?

And so, I finally reach the end of this project. I don’t think I realized what I was setting myself up to do when I established a goal of writing a minimum of 500 words for each game. With 100 games and 500 words being the equivalent of about 2 standard pages, I have essentially written something the size of a small novel, all for a project which was supposed to be a brief distraction as I took a break from editing my actual novel manuscript. Reaching this final moment is both relieving but also a bit of an anti-climax – is BioShock really my favorite video game?

The truth is, BioShock briefly dethroned Final Fantasy X as my favorite game in the time between its release and Persona 4 all those years ago – Persona 4 held my #1 spot until I played Life is Strange. While working on this list, I kept shifting these top six games around and nothing felt right sitting at the top. But the reason I wanted to write about all these experiences which have influenced me throughout my life was to reach a deeper understanding. One thing became perfectly clear – when comparing many of these games to outside experiences, BioShock came up the most, to the point I had to actively stop myself from mentioning it. One might think such universal applicability might be a sign of something generic, yet BioShock has always stood as its own entity. As I wrote while discussing BioShock Infinite, that sequel felt more like a lament that nothing could ever quite capture the magic of the original.

When we talk about great works of art, there is a constant struggle between giving credit to the innovators or the refinements. BioShock falls strictly in the latter category, doing nothing particularly new within the medium. But BioShock feels like a work which draws inspiration from every corner of classic game design to create something exceptional. The influence from other first-person shooters is obvious, but I also see shades of Resident Evil and several principal Nintendo design philosophies.

On the surface, BioShock takes the set-piece design revolutionized by Resident Evil 4 and Half-Life 2 and really perfects it. Like Half-Life 2, this is a first-person shooter which largely refuses to feature cutscenes. Outside of the opening and ending, there are only three I can remember, and they have obvious explanations for having to be presented that way, all while maintaining a first-person perspective and thus a sense of total seamlessness. Yet Half-Life 2 would largely fall back on locking Gordon in a room while other characters spoke to him. BioShock has a similar approach, but two changes make it more effective. First, the characters in BioShock usually get to the point. Second, the characters trapping Jack tend to literally be trapping him; the doors are locked because they don’t want you going forward. These moments are never tedious and tend to be full of tension, typically coming as a lead-in to a major confrontation.

As such, BioShock is one of the best examples of seamless narrative integration. But what if you want more? This is a world with some deep lore, and this is a game which rewards total exploration. While there is always an arrow pointed toward the next destination, the central areas are massive with several stray paths to explore. Rapture is littered with audio diaries, brief snippets from various residents as they reflect on the city. It’s up to the player to learn as much about the city as they desire.

The character design is surprisingly effective, especially for a game which pushed realism all the way back in 2007. Despite this, the enemies are designed to appear intentionally uncanny, helping them age better than BioShock’s contemporaries. Meanwhile, the Big Daddies and Little Sisters are two of the most striking creature designs in all of gaming. Nothing quite gets under my skin like a little girl laughing as she sees a dead body and saying that it’s dancing. Though the combat isn’t BioShock’s strongest point, fighting a Big Daddy is effective. There’s something about the animations of being knocked around that adds a visceral feeling which is lacking in most other FPS games that I have played.

The elements which truly push BioShock above so many other games is setting and atmosphere. Few worlds are as perfectly designed as Rapture, both as a conceptual place and through level design. The idea of Rapture is ingenious – what if a bunch of objectivists attempted to create their own twisted utopia on the ocean floor? As one particularly poignant audio diary puts it, someone has to clean the toilets. This is a city full of naïve opportunists too narcissistic to realize their position in the world was relative. With objectivism putting an emphasis on greedy upward mobility, this is a place where everyone wants to come out on top – but those already on top have the power to put everyone else down. And far beneath the ocean where the man in charge wants to keep the city a secret, everyone is trapped upon entry. Where most sci-fi and fantasy stories rely on a few familiar tropes, Rapture felt like a fresh idea.

The game design itself acknowledges this idea. There are health stations on every corner which seem capable of healing any damage, but of course they require payment. Even the security can be shut down as long as you have a few dollars – the city doesn’t care if you’re sneaking around where you shouldn’t be if you’re loaded. Even the bathroom stalls require payment.

These levels all capture a specific brand of horror. The opening sequence shows a city in decay, suggesting the city will soon be flooded. Many of these stages revolve around a particular person going mad with power, and the Medical Pavilion is the perfect level to kick this off. Dr. Steinman has become obsessed with the idea of becoming the Picasso of surgery, which is exactly as horrifying as that sounds. Despite being surrounded by human beings, few games capture such an unsettling sense of isolation; the closest comparison is Metroid. And like Metroid Prime, this is a perfect example of an FPS where the emphasis is more on exploration than shooting.

The team behind BioShock went to great lengths to give each location its own feel. There’s a subtle color scheme that sets each of these stages apart, yet they all share the right features to feel like parts of the same city. Additionally, all of these stages are engaging. I used to be convinced there was a dip or two, but after replaying this game last week, they each serve a grand purpose.

While there are several great levels, Fort Frolic stands as one of the all-time best. While trying to jump from one passage to the next, Jack gets locked inside and is forced to do the bidding of Sander Cohen, a mad artist who has decided to hunt down his ‘disciples’ to create his masterpiece. It might be hard to imagine the artist quarter being the most terrifying, but the area is filled with his other great works; namely, dozens of dead people cast in plaster. Even worse, some of them turn out to be living…

Would you kindly accept my apology for needing to jump into spoilers for the next paragraph?

And then there’s the big bad himself, Andrew Ryan. Can you talk about BioShock without mentioning that famous scene? You will head into Ryan’s area expecting some explosive confrontation. Instead, the moment is stolen from you; as mentioned before, there are only a handful of cutscenes, yet they choose to put the most important moment in this form. Andrew Ryan explains the truth of this experience, which you might have started piecing together if you paid enough attention to the various audio logs. Jack is Andrew Ryan’s son who has been aged rapidly, thus explaining your ability to use the vita-chambers despite them only recognizing Ryan’s genetics. He then points out that Jack has been trained to follow any command which uses the phrase ‘would you kindly,’ revealing you have been used by the seemingly friendly Atlas from the very beginning, before forcing Jack to beat him to death with a golf club. All this while saying the famous line “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” BioShock and Portal made waves for outright acknowledging the idea that all video games must be programmed and are thus structured, no matter how many choices are offered – but then they push the idea of ‘breaking free,’ revealing the sense of freedom can work even while acknowledging these limits. This scene is perhaps the most important moment in video game storytelling, something which reshaped not just its own narrative but our perception of all others, and the fact it is pointedly a cutscene in a game which otherwise does without should not be overlooked.

It is difficult to call BioShock or any single video game the greatest ever. My own favorite game shifts constantly, and other games have held that title for a more consistent time. Yet it’s hard to overlook just how much this game does right. From the narrative to the atmosphere to the visual design to the sense of exploration, this is a game that does nearly everything right. Yet even this all-time great has one obvious flaw; as a first-person shooter, dozens of others have more engaging combat. My love of BioShock is actually a bit of an oddity – I have never been the biggest fan of this genre. But like Psychonauts or Metroid Prime, BioShock works wonders when viewed more as an interactive adventure. Few experiences have hit me like exploring this underwater testament to humanity’s greed.

The Greatest Games: Persona 4 (2008)

Persona 4 (2008)
Developed by Atlus

Playing Persona 4 back in 2008 was a major revelation. Being my first Shin Megami Tensei game, it surprised me that a traditional turn-based RPG could be truly challenging from the very beginning. But the truly mind-blowing element was the unique formula with which the Persona series tells its stories and the story this specific entry chose to tell.

As I have already written about both Persona 3 and Persona 5, I don’t want to waste too much time retreading the universal elements. The year-long visual novel/JRPG hybrid is phenomenal, and whichever did it best was destined to land a high spot. Instead, I will be comparing this directly to Persona 5 to argue why Persona 4 is the (slightly) better game, while hopefully making it clear why those unique elements add up to a truly masterful experience.

First, Persona 4 keeps things small-scale throughout most of the narrative. The protagonist has moved in with his uncle and niece in a middle of nowhere town named Inaba. An all-consuming Walmart-style entity named Junes has set up shop, so half the businesses on the central street are now closed. Few games bother with a rural setting, and it’s even rarer to find one exploring themes of modern economic hardship – to use this as the setting for an 80-hour JRPG was truly inspired. Compare this to Persona 5, which takes place in the sprawling metropolis you might recognize as Tokyo. Persona 5 is bigger than life, but that’s true of so many games.

Soon after arriving, an upperclassman named Saki Konishi is found hanging from power lines. The protagonist discovers a local rumor called the Midnight Channel, which supposedly shows a person’s soulmate on a foggy night. Instead, he and his friends soon realize that the people who are shown have gone missing. They stumble upon a world inside the television, where people are eaten alive by their own negative self-perception. Thus, the grand stretch of the game revolves around rescuing the various victims while trying to figure out who is shoving them inside in the first place. The overarching story is one of the elements in which I think Persona 5 has the edge, but I also believe the individual moments are Persona 4’s greatest advantage.

In Persona 5, the dungeons are typically built around the villain of the month. They are striking in the moment, but they have little lasting impact on the story; once you defeat the villain, they’re typically out of the picture. The ingenious idea behind Persona 4 is that most of the people being rescued are the future party members. Like Mass Effect 2, Persona 4 has a serious advantage over other RPGs due to treating the individual party members as the central focus for significant portions of the story. Persona 4 is especially interesting because it’s built around learning their deepest secrets before really getting to know them as people. The group coming together in this case also feels natural, as it’s a band of victims teaming up to rescue the next target.

In the context of the series at large, personas are the entities the party members summon to pull off their stronger attacks. At the same time, the series does dive into the Jungian psychology behind these terms. Persona 4 uses the concept of the shadow well, where the main bosses are the shadow selves the victims refuse to acknowledge as parts of themselves. By eventually confronting this part, the characters are better able to express themselves. This adds to the character dynamics; with these seemingly negative aspects out of the way, the party members come off as more open and honest with one another.

Despite the randomized nature, the actual atmosphere of the dungeons has always been striking. And while it might be easy to give Persona 5 the edge here because the main dungeons have a set design, that can actually be a hindrance – the spaceport level is not very good and was enough for me to take an extended break from a game I had wanted to play ever since falling in love with the previous entry eight years earlier. Persona 4, meanwhile, has a reliable pace and feel. They may not be as flashy or intricate, but these dungeons work.

I also enjoy the structure of Persona 4’s social links. In Persona 5, everything is explicitly connected back to the main case in some way. But I kind of like the idea that some random woman you meet at a part-time daycare job can have a serious influence on the protagonist’s psyche. It better captures the sense of not knowing who will be the most important people around you until making that connection while also building into the slice of life atmosphere that makes this game so unique within its genre.

Where most Japanese RPGs tell epic tales of fighting against evil, Persona 4 resists those urges to explore themes closer to earth. Despite all odds, it manages to capture the same tone, hooking the player with a phenomenal cast and intriguing mystery, all built around one of the best turn-based combat engines. Some might prefer the bombastic nature of Persona 5, but as someone who spent their teenage years questioning their identity in a small town, Persona 4 has always carried a special resonance. The fact I got to experience this story during those years simply seals its place as one of my all-time favorites.

The Greatest Games: Life is Strange (2015)

Life is Strange (2015)
Developed by Dontnod Entertainment

Greatness does not mean without flaws. While most of my favorite games achieve this status by juggling several strong ideas without notable hiccups, Life is Strange has some obvious issues. Namely, this is a Telltale-style adventure game with some stilted dialogue. A narrative-focused video game with questionable writing should be a death knell. This is the story of two teenage American girls written by two middle-aged French men and it shows. I start with this because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m somehow blind to these flaws. Rather, I believe the positives of this experience greatly outweigh these negatives, to the point that these apparent flaws actually add an odd charm to the overall experience.

When The Walking Dead shot onto the scene, it promised a new era of video game storytelling. The magic wore off almost immediately once people recognized the limits. This was largely a case where that initial game was simply that good of a story and its formula couldn’t really be repeated, at least not without some inventive thinking. The gameplay itself was largely tedious. The Walking Dead showed that games could act like television, but what did that experience add if the gameplay itself wasn’t gripping and when we’ve all learned choice is largely an illusion?

There are a few things Life is Strange does differently which sets it above these similar titles. First, there’s true justification for its gameplay style. Most of Telltale’s games could have been more involved. There are moments where something like The Walking Dead feels like it’s holding back despite the medium allowing more. But the Telltale formula is a perfect fit for a modern high school mystery. Life is Strange is using this formula to tell a story which otherwise wouldn’t be told in this medium.

Secondly, Life is Strange is a game which outright acknowledges the inevitable several times over. A game like The Walking Dead carries a negative aftertaste when you look back and realize nothing you chose mattered. By giving glimpses of the future state, Life is Strange instead becomes a game where the central theme is fighting against fate. By narrowing the focus, it’s easier to accept these limits. This is a perfect example of not negating but embracing limits. While not hitting the player over the head with a golf club, this is ultimately a deconstruction in the same vein as Portal and BioShock.

I shouldn’t bury that statement at the end of a paragraph. Life is Strange deconstructs the idea of choice-based video games while playing itself straight. There’s never a moment where it seems to get caught up in its own cleverness. Instead, there’s a layer of utmost sincerity, which results in this being one of the most emotionally resonant works I’ve experienced in any medium.

Let’s cycle back to the beginning again; before we can discuss the deconstructive nature, we must first establish the surface tension which hooks us in the first place. The game begins with protagonist Max navigating her way through a violent storm before waking up in class. She heads to the bathroom, where she watches a violent confrontation resulting in an unknown girl getting shot. Max suddenly jumps back to waking up, where she is suddenly able to answer her teacher’s question due to the memory before heading straight to the bathroom and stopping the shooting. She soon realizes the girl was her now-distant childhood best friend, Chloe.

Life is Strange thus operates as a murder mystery where the murder never happens. But it’s clear from the set-up that something needs to be done about Nathan Prescott, the would-be killer. The narrative juggles a few major threads. Chloe’s best friend in the intervening years, Rachel Amber, has been missing for months. Max and Chloe themselves have a lot of catching up to do, especially for Max’s silence while Chloe was coping with the sudden loss of her father. Taking after Twin Peaks, there are a couple dozen minor characters with their own arcs. A lot of your opinion of this game will be shaped by how easily you can handle Chloe’s brash and impulsive nature. For me, I instantly adored her character.

All of these elements are reinforced by Max’s power to rewind time. The first major choice in the game involves deciding whether or not to tell the principal about Nathan having a gun. Naturally, Max can rewind time after making a choice. This also means most choices are designed where both options have some sort of negative element. By seeing the immediate outcome and being able to cycle back, Life is Strange isn’t about making choices but learning to accept them. Most choice-based games have you make a decision and that’s that; Life is Strange wants to paralyze you in the moment, forcing self-doubt and hesitance.

It’s at this point where I need to put up the necessary spoiler warning – it’s difficult to argue the greatness of a narrative work without diving into the specifics.

From an interactive perspective, Life is Strange’s strongest suit is its seamless ability to rewrite its own rules. The moment that really hits people occurs at the end of episode 2. While Max and Chloe spend the day trying to learn Max’s limits, there’s a b-plot about a fellow student who had an embarrassing video posted online. As Max returns to the dorms, this student has climbed to the roof and is threatening to jump. Max is able to somehow freeze time and work her way up to the roof, but pushing her limits like this causes her powers to temporarily stop working. The player must now talk the girl down without the ability to correct mistakes. There’s a sense of powerlessness in this moment that I’ve never experienced elsewhere, but I was lucky to have paid enough attention to her to find a peaceful resolution. A game has never left me feeling so relieved, while others had to face the despair.

Similarly, at the end of episode 3, Max discovers a new power which allows her to jump back to the time of a photograph. She naturally uses this to reverse the death of Chloe’s dad. By doing so, Max finds herself in a twisted world where Chloe has been paralyzed. This sequence telegraphs the ending, but this is also where the deconstruction really takes hold. You are given an outright meaningless choice here. Chloe asks for Max to end her misery. This alternate Chloe does not matter in the grand picture, as Max has already decided to reverse this change. Despite this apparent lack of weight, this moment is absolutely gut-wrenching. The game seems to be asking a very important question: does something have to canonically happen to carry weight? Or is it more important that both the protagonist and the audience has seen these alternatives, even if it’s something we can only share among ourselves?

Perhaps the most depressing moment comes at the end of episode 4, entirely independent of choice. Max and Chloe learn Rachel Amber had been murdered and buried just a few steps down from their hangout spot near the tracks. In a game where it feels like we have increasing power over fate, this is a striking reminder that certain things in life are beyond our control. Seeing Chloe break down as she digs is another powerful moment you rarely see in media, let alone in a video game.

This game makes a perfect pairing with Undertale because there’s only one ‘real’ path. Of course, there is a choice at the end of the game which gives two wildly different conclusions, but only one is satisfying and based around learning the message of this game. As I said earlier, this is a game about acceptance – after every awful side effect you’ve witnessed, you have to accept that you can’t actually save Chloe. To do anything besides turn back time and let her die in the bathroom would be selfish. The fact you have to be the one to hit the button is what makes this so heartbreaking.

It’s easy to write this experience off – to turn back time means literally erasing everything you have done over the course of this game. But you haven’t, for both you and Max have still gone through that experience. This is a game about grieving loss, and the story has stolen everything from you but the memories; but are our memories worth nothing?

To put it in another perspective, imagine your closest friend has died and you are given a chance to spend one more week with them; after that week, the events themselves will be wiped from the earth, but you will still remember. Would anyone reject this offer? Life is Strange is about that sort of purgatorial experience of wishing you had just a bit more time with someone you had taken for granted.

Life is Strange carves out its own unique niche, telling a story with heavy yet human themes in a setting few games explore. This is a tragic tale with a great cast. And, sure, maybe the characters overuse frankly bizarre lingo, but for a game trying to capture the spirit of Twin Peaks, these eccentricities fit perfectly.  This is the one game to truly fulfill the promise laid out by Telltale’s The Walking Dead, featuring a story powerful enough to paralyze while including key moments of interactivity that could not meaningfully be pulled off in another medium.

The Greatest Games: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Developed by BioWare

Being the middle episode of a planned trilogy can come with some issues. The first episode gets to capture our imaginations with whatever new world the story is introducing to us, while the third will hopefully be able to tie together all those concepts established in the earlier entries. The second entry is essentially the load-bearing beam, sometimes serving as an extended second act. In something like Mass Effect, this second episode has to build up the threat established in the first game while doing little to truly advance the resolution.

While carrying this burden, Mass Effect 2 manages to excel by focusing on a different part of its narrative. Where the other two are stories of the galaxy at large, Mass Effect 2 hones in on the personal. This is Seven Samurai in space, the story of Commander Shepard as he brings together the perfect team for an apparent suicide mission.

Part of the excellence of this series is the deeply intriguing species. In the first game, the alien party members could sometimes feel overly expository, like they were teaching courses in Quarian 101. The characters in Mass Effect 2 tend to come from extremes in their society, resulting in more specific viewpoints. Samara is a justicar, a force which upholds justice within asari society. Grunt is a krogan grown in a tube purely for combat purposes. Thane Krios introduces the drell species, who appear doomed to shortened life spans after the decline of their homeworld. Saved by the hanar, Thane was raised from his childhood to be an assassin for this other species. While introducing a new species and adding heavier lore to a minor species from the original, Thane’s story is still focused on his personal struggle coping with his history and disease. Even Garrus has abandoned the disciplined nature of his species and gone rogue. This is a band of outsiders, only willing to join Shepard out of righteousness or recklessness.

Of course, plenty of other video games imitate the Seven Samurai narrative – that is essentially the central formula of the JRPG. Unfortunately, many of these games feature little beyond a bit of back story and some dialogue. In something like Final Fantasy, only a few party member ever seem to get extended focus; party members operate more as a collective than individuals.

It’s no coincidence that my two favorite RPG games are structured around learning about the party members. In Mass Effect 2, the central missions in the first half of the game involve gathering these people from their disparate locations. These episodes set the scene, establishing what makes this specific character special. In the second half, Shepard is also given the option to pursue loyalty missions, diving deeper into their personal concerns. Thus, most characters get not just one but two full segments dedicated to them specifically. Additionally, with all the inherent tension of the races and organizations involved, there are some moments where two party members come into conflict, requiring Shepard to talk them down. These are brief but necessary reminders about how this galactic civilization is barely holding itself together.

This also makes the finale more effective. On a suicide run where literally any character can die, having well-defined party members is essential. The structure of this finale is also exceptional. The game thankfully drops the good vs. bad system and instead relies on the player actually picking the right choices for each job, while also punishing the player for not investing into their ship and allies. This can obviously be negated by the save system, but much like Undertale, simply knowing the possibility for absolute failure actually exists changes the perspective. Unfortunately, the idiot Shepard I created in the first Mass Effect met an untimely end.

On a gameplay level, this is a total improvement over the original Mass Effect. This is the third-person shooter at its best, throwing in some fun extras; while Mass Effect 3 refined this further, it’s still excellent here. With the various loyalty missions requiring the participation of the relevant party member, there’s also a reason to make a full tour of each member’s ability. The level design is also a major improvement – in the original Mass Effect, side quests reused the same assets constantly. Here, each location has a unique design. Any story-rich video game I have played multiple times for the gameplay itself is an obvious winner.

Despite the middle episode of a trilogy traditionally serving as a bridge, Mass Effect 2 is the rare example which could stand on its own. The narrative dives deeper into lore beyond grand historical conflicts, the ending is perhaps the most explosive finale a game has ever pulled off, and this is all while featuring one of the strongest casts the medium has ever seen. With all of this being backed by an inventive and addictive action-RPG hybrid system, Mass Effect 2 is an unforgettable experience.

The Greatest Games: Super Metroid (1994)

Super Metroid
Developed by Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems

While Metroid Prime was a nearly perfect transition into the third dimension, I have to give a slight edge to the previous entry. The Metroidvania genre has largely stuck within the 2D realm because it’s a perfect twist on the traditional platformer. Despite its quality, Metroid Prime can be a bit unwieldy – Nintendo is at their best when they stick with simple mechanics surrounded by stellar level design. Thus, Super Metroid is Nintendo’s best game, with Samus being smooth to control yet the planet Zebes being among their most intricate designs.

To me, the Metroidvania is Nintendo’s greatest formula – there’s a reason it spawned a genre that includes it in the name. As a design, it’s easy to imitate but quite difficult to pull off. Even the franchise that paved the way has struggled to capture the magic each time – no other entry in the Metroid series came all that close to my top 100, yet the two that did managed to land all the way within the top 10. Some games which fall under the Metroidvania umbrella don’t really seem to fit – they have a wide world to explore, but they’re light on the backtracking. Many of these are still great games, but that has more to do with them being great platformers than particularly notable Metroidvania games. Others go all in on the backtracking, but that sometimes gets tedious. It takes a certain balance to actually make backtracking feel fun. What I said about the other Metroidvania games featured in this project is true of Super Metroid – the game is designed to let the player explore, yet there’s always a sense of where to go next.

What separates a Metroidvania from an open world game is that many Metroidvania games are linear – their massive world is more a puzzle to be solved. The player must explore to find the right sequence, keeping track of certain areas which are blocked off. This can be through doors locked behind items the player doesn’t have, areas which require certain protective gear, or even a ledge which is just out of reach.

Even more than the 2D Mario games, Super Metroid is a hard game to praise with words. When I praise its best features, it sounds as though I am describing the Metroidvania genre in general. This is the danger of being so influential – what were once unique traits become seemingly generic. But Nintendo has been at the forefront of a lot of genres and mechanical evolutions. And like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Metroid both serves as a revolution and a refinement. This paved the way for the Metroidvania yet is also one of the finest examples. Perhaps the most important evolution is the introduction of a map – a Metroidvania without a map sounds ridiculous now, but the first two Metroid games did without. This little bit of navigational assistance went a long way toward complex yet reasonable designs.

What can make or break a Metroidvania game is the pacing – go too long without giving the player a new upgrade which allows them to explore an old path and the linearity begins to show. Which, yes, this is admitting that the genre is built around a certain sense of illusion, but that’s true of most art. The feeling of open exploration is more important than actual implementation. Super Metroid is bulky enough to feel significant yet paced where there’s a constant sense of progress.

Another winning feature of Metroid is the setting. Super Metroid does little beyond setting the stage before dropping the player off on Zebes – outside of the NES era, this is a rare Nintendo game to start the player off with little instruction. The bosses are fairly intimidating due to their alien design and lack of lore. Super Metroid is oozing with a sense of quiet isolation. It’s not just being free to roam a big area that makes this a classic – like the later Soulsborne games, every new region feels like stepping into forbidden territory.

Super Metroid is the perfect showcase of everything that has made Nintendo an important company: simple mechanics, stellar level design, quality of life innovations, minimal yet effective storytelling – this is 2D gaming at its finest.

The Greatest Games: Dark Souls (2011)

Dark Souls (2011)
Developed by FromSoftware

According to legend, Dark Souls is a relentlessly brutal video game experience that will punish the player for the slightest error. People shudder in fear at the thought of losing all their currency by dying once and failing to get back to the same spot…almost as if they’ve forgotten that many other video games completely wipe your progress since the last save. While the future games by FromSoftware may have gone too far with skill-based gameplay, the true genius of the original Dark Souls is that it finds challenge through knowledge.

I need to start this with a controversial claim. Dark Souls has an awful gatekeeping community that has decided for whatever reason to shame people for using summons, telling them that doing anything other than solo play is robbing them of the ‘true’ Dark Souls experience. This is a core element of the design which is actually quite revolutionary – why would FromSoftware put in the effort to make this system if not to be used? It’s like if the Pokemon fanbase developed the Nuzlocke challenge during Red and Blue and spent the next two decades chiding new players for not releasing their Pokemon upon fainting.

I say this because part of the ingenious design behind Dark Souls results in it being two games at once. Alone, this is a brutally challenging action RPG. With a summon or two, this transforms into an accessible dungeon crawl. Dark Souls gets away with not having difficulty options because the difficulty slider is built into the mechanics. As someone who believes the true genius of the game largely lies in its level design, these options are key in making this a truly universal masterpiece.

The other side of summoning is being summoned. The obvious reward for this is humanity if you assist in beating the boss, but the true benefit of the system is being able to safely get a sense of the level ahead without risking your own souls. The game also provides the option to invade another player, which can also go a few ways. Some want to be honorable duelists, while others want to ruin someone else’s day. The fact you can only summon by also opening yourself up to invasions gives the mechanic a sense of risk – a reasonably skilled player is more dangerous than any enemy, especially if they can trick you into an enemy’s aggro range. Despite the relatively straightforward narrative progression, this game offers tons of ways to play. The best option is to play the way which results in the most fun.

Let’s cycle back to the game itself. The opening level is a work of art. You start down in a cell and work your way out, finding your first bonfire easily enough. You walk through the nearby door and suddenly the first boss leaps down. You have virtually nothing at this point. You might assume this is a trick, one of those annoying fights where you’re expected to lose, only to have a cutscene play out of your inevitable defeat. If you stick to this, you find yourself back at the bonfire. Hopefully, you’ll eventually notice the open door in the back corner. This leads to the rest of this short area, where you will arm yourself with a proper weapon and shield. A dying man will give you the estus flask, which allows the player to heal a few times. Going up will lead to a ledge where you can attack the boss from above, dealing a significant chunk of damage – but going down opens a locked door back to the bonfire.

This opening is a microcosm of the game at large, subtly teaching everything you need to know. That first encounter with the boss encourages spatial awareness. When the game starts hiding enemies behind corners, you need to maintain a sense of all possible openings. That next stretch is a proper tutorial, teaching the player how to fight a few common enemies while avoiding obvious traps. And then there’s the fork in the road, which suggests heading straight into the boss chamber might not be the best idea. This game is loaded with shortcuts, encouraging the player to explore every inch of the level to make sure they can’t reduce the length of the bonfire run.

The first main area of the game, Firelink Shrine, has a few possible exits. You will likely stumble into the graveyard and be slaughtered by some surprisingly strong skeletons. You might also stumble into a submerged city plagued by ghosts – I imagine most of us turned back as soon as we saw this intimidating sight, but a brave player might stumble across an upgrade for their healing for their troubles. This introduces another often overlooked feature – this is a game which encourages running as much as fighting. Though you lose souls upon death, you keep whatever item you find – it can be worth it to make a mad dash through a high-level area to get a rare item.

Running is a consistently strong strategy in this game – anyone who thinks there’s too much time between bonfires and bosses is too caught up in the mindset of a traditional RPG, where you should fight every enemy for the experience. This is what I mean when I say this is a game based more on knowledge than skill – once you learn an area and get stuck on the boss, you absolutely should be sprinting past the common enemies. You still need the skill to avoid their attacks, but this is typically a better strategy than forcing yourself to fight a dozen enemies before the boss. Yet the genius of the level design is that you can’t really sprint the first time through – these levels are filled with little alcoves, and one wrong turn might leave you surrounded by enemies.

Fighting, sprinting, summoning – the game is loaded with options to overcome these challenges. In fact, during the first playthrough, I think the real challenge is learning all the possibilities – even better than summoning a strong ally is finding a powerful sword and mastering the upgrade system. I absolutely tore through the back half of the game my first time through after making this investment.

There are two major reasons any of us bothered to stick with this despite the initial challenge. One, this world is beautiful. Every location has a striking sense of detail, from the visual design to the level layout – this is one of those games where every inch of the world has a purpose. Though this is not a Metroidvania, there are several moments where you will take a shortcut and realize this seemingly distant location was right next to something familiar. This creates a feeling of containment, that you truly are exploring a single massive location. The lore also manages to be both richly-detailed and vague, which helps form the foreboding atmosphere.

Secondly, this is sword and shield gameplay at its finest, like if The Legend of Zelda was consistently challenging. While sprinting can be important in navigating an area, combat itself is methodical. Yet the game rarely allows the player to simply hold up their shield and wait for an opening. The stamina system punishes too much defensive play, and some enemies require a quick dispatch. This game is all about adapting to the current situation, making every new enemy a new experience. And a major reason I prefer this to the follow-ups is that these enemies never feel particularly cheap (except for one particular stretch in the back half; this probably would be my favorite video game without Lost Izalith and the Bed of Chaos) – boss fights in Dark Souls III seem to involve relentless attacks with few obvious windows to strike back. The later games feel as though From really bought into the public perception of the series, and their focus on challenging combat has also let the world design slide.

The original Dark Souls stands as a rare game to be both challenging and accessible – victory truly feels like overcoming the odds, yet the methodical design means most players can eventually adapt if they only have a little patience and pay attention. This is a game most of us will struggle through, but the genius is revealed if you ever start again – that same opening which you spent hours conquering will likely go down without a fuss, all because you now understand the strange new language this game has laid down.

The Greatest Games: Metroid Prime (2002)

Metroid Prime (2002)
Developed by Retro Studios

Nintendo sometimes insists on certain terminology for their games. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an ‘open-air’ game, whatever that means. Metroid Prime, meanwhile, is not a first-person shooter, despite being in the first person and involving shooting. No, no, Metroid Prime is a first-person adventure.

Genres themselves are nebulous – when I began this project, I tried to classify each of my top 100 games by their main genre. “Action-Adventure” is a real doozy – what is The Legend of Zelda series doing in the same general category as both Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus? Several others pull from so many genres that any term becomes virtually useless. Metroid Prime is one such game, featuring elements from first-person shooters, platformers, action-adventures, and, perhaps most importantly, the Metroidvania.

The hesitance to call this a first-person shooter stems from an obvious source. The grand majority of games in the genre are about taking proper aim and attempting to outshoot the enemy. Here, Samus can use lock-on, so combat revolves more around strafing while having a continuous shot. Anyone coming for traditional FPS gameplay would have been disappointed. In many ways, this feels more like a variant on something like Zelda than an FPS. At the same time, it would have been nice for Nintendo to embrace the term – Metroid Prime perfectly showcased how the first-person shooter genre could explore different ideas, and it’s clearly in line with later works like BioShock. The emphasis does not always have to be on the shooting itself.

But the core experience of Metroid Prime really is exploration in the Metroidvania fashion – without the Prime trilogy, the Metroidvania might as well have remained a term exclusive to 2D platformers. It’s actually surprising. Indie developers churn out a dozen 2D Metroidvania games a year, and Metroid Prime was one of the most critically acclaimed games ever upon release – why has no one else made a successful attempt? The fact Metroid Prime still stands as the best 3D Metroidvania simply because it has no real competition after 18 years is mind-boggling – the closest things are the Soulsborne games and Arkham Asylum, but neither of those games have this specific brand of exploration as the core focus.

What makes the Metroidvania genre so special is a feeling of interconnectedness. Even while something like Half-Life features one clear journey from point A to point B and thus remains connected, the idea of trekking through earlier territory remains rather unique. Open World games obviously allow revisiting locations, but they also lack the signature level design which makes going to the right place at the right time so key. The best Metroidvania games balance a line between partial openness and subtle guidance.

Metroid Prime would probably be a classic simply for existing in a space few other games have even attempted. But, clearly, it goes beyond that. Tallon IV is a beautiful world. Even the ice section is a classic, with a gently ambient theme that’s hard to forget. Like the best Zelda games, every inch of the game world feels like it has purpose. Adding to the exploration is Samus’s ability to scan for more information. The older Metroid games rarely gave direct exposition, and this is a nice way to include more without being as intrusive as a cutscene. The game maintains a heightened sense of isolation throughout, and there are moments which might even be described as scary. This game isn’t afraid to drop the lights completely at certain points. Space is a big and empty place, and the Metroid series has always captured that atmosphere well.

Nintendo led the pack when it came to transitioning their classic series into 3D. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time established several concepts which have become essential for the medium at large. With Metroid, Nintendo took an extra generation to figure things out, and they went in a surprising direction – was anyone asking for the Metroid series to be converted into first-person? The insistent terminology seemed like something to worry over, suggesting Nintendo was desperately trying to appease the established fan base. Yet when the final product hit, it was clear they captured the magic of Super Metroid in a new form. Metroid Prime may not have redefined the industry like Mario and Zelda, but this was a top-notch take at what might be Nintendo’s most remarkable formula.

The Greatest Games: Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Team Silent)

The original Silent Hill was one of the first big hits to match the cinematic possibilities of third-dimensional gaming with a truly mature narrative. Silent Hill 2 amplifies this experience. The story is better, the monsters scarier, the atmosphere denser. This is everything a survival horror game should aspire to be.

The biggest element which makes Silent Hill 2 stand above the other games in its franchise is how it conceptualizes the town. The dense fog and darker realms have always been intense, but this game adds a narrative aspect which casts a shadow over the entire experience. Silent Hill 2 presents the idea that the town is a reflection of any visitor’s inner psyche. Thus, every element of the experience can be analyzed as symbolic of James Sunderland’s experience.

This means that the monsters are more than mere obstacles. Being two sets of feminine legs, the mannequins come off as obvious symbols of sexual frustration. But many other monsters are related to James’s repressed memories, meaning their meanings are obscured through a lack of information. As with anything, fear of the unknown weighs heavily, made even worse by the expectation that nothing here is inexplicable. Visual design can only go so far, but knowing these come from within makes everything so much worse.

Pyramid Head has become an iconic villain not because he personally has depth but because he represents James’s darkest parts. His abuse of the mannequins suggests something being very wrong before we find out why. In a game otherwise filled with feminine monstrosities, it is the masculine Pyramid Head who relentlessly pursues James throughout the town. In fact, his masculinity is so overdone that his obvious phallic symbol actually weighs him down – yet that hindrance never stops this symbol from being as terrifying as intended.

Video games rarely confront sexual themes. Additionally, many games which do largely take a juvenile approach. There will be sex jokes, there will be scantily clad women, and there might even be an embarrassing cutscene as a reward for romancing a party member. Buried within all the surface horror of Silent Hill 2 is one of the medium’s greatest takes on human sexuality. In a game about people being eaten alive by their inner fears, the narrative never shies away from acknowledging this as an obvious source. It’s rare for a video game to even have a meaningful opportunity to confront issues such as lust and sexual violence, and Silent Hill 2 dared to tackle these themes in an era where even the most narrative-rich contemporaries were still focused on supersoldiers and summoners. This game so easily gets under our skin because its horrors are both human and familiar.

Even without these themes, Silent Hill 2 is absolutely terrifying. The first encounter with Pyramid Head is one of my favorite moments in gaming. The scariest moment in a franchise like early Resident Evil is a zombie jumping through a mirror – a literal jump scare. Here, the most intimidating sequence is Pyramid Head simply standing at the end of a hallway, cast in an eerie red light. There’s a grate between the two of you, giving only the slightest sense of protection. You must walk down this hall, toward the monster, to reach a room, and he’s gone when you step back out. This establishes a lingering dread – now you know what the monster looks like, but it felt so much better when you had a sense of where he stood. And, naturally, the game forces you to find your way to the other side of that grate. This is a work which understands that the expectation of a threat tends to be worse than the threat itself.

One of the worst feelings Silent Hill 2 gives is the sense that James is doing this all to himself. Other horror protagonists are typically trapped or at least pursuing a solid goal, but James made the trip to this town and keeps going even when things appear off. In a horror film, it’s easy to chide a character for making poor decisions. Having to make those poor decisions, on the other hand, can be a nauseating experience. The game keeps diving into deeper and darker places, and the dissonance between player and protagonist helps build the unease.

With ever more realistic graphics, video games have only grown better at providing scares. Yet this early PS2 game manages to be completely terrifying, even as someone who played it for the first time in the last few years. There’s an unease to this experience like few others, like you are doing something wrong by pursuing this course of action. Even as the Resident Evil characters dive deeper into secret labs, there’s always the sense that they’re ultimately trying to get out – getting out is at the heart of nearly every horror story. Silent Hill 2 sticks with us because James Sunderland seems dead set on getting in, and we’re being dragged along for his self-destructive ride.

The Greatest Games: Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)

Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
Developed by Lucas Pope

As video game development gets more complex, more and more people get involved in the creative process. This complexity mixed with bloated budgets has resulted in an industry where truly daring ideas never get off the ground. So called ‘medium-defining’ works like The Last of Us Part II are only pushing the narrative envelope. When was the last time a major video game actually felt like a truly revolutionary experience? Ever since the era of the PlayStation 2 saw the last few genres finally figure out 3D gameplay, the industry has focused more on refining trusted formulas than attempting anything new. And, ultimately, what new ground is there left to tread? It’s hard to actually imagine anything new, or else it likely would have already happened. It takes a true creative genius to figure out where to go next.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the rare game that truly feels like its own entity. It makes sense that such a work is essentially a lone man’s passion project. After Papers, Please became a surprise hit, Lucas Pope spent five years working on this project. And it’s not that Return of the Obra Dinn completely defies categorization. As a narrative genre, this is purely a mystery. In regards to gameplay, this is easily comparable to something like Myst. But those new elements it mixes in transcends to what feels like the development of a new subgenre, though whether anyone will dare to follow in this game’s ambitious footsteps is yet to be seen.

Due to its relative obscurity, Return of the Obra Dinn is the rare game in this project that actually needs a proper introduction. The Obra Dinn is a trade ship that went missing in 1803 which suddenly drifted back to shore in 1807. Naturally, all the crew members have disappeared. You play as an insurance inspector armed with a magical pocket watch which can teleport you to the very moment of someone’s death when you find their body. Thus, the gameplay involves searching the ship for bodies and trying to make sense of what you find.

The goal is rather straightforward. You are given a list of the sixty people who were aboard the ship. Your job is to figure out what happened to whom. As you witness each death, the game asks you to fill out who they were, how they died, and who killed them if they were murdered. The trick to this game which sets it apart from other murder mysteries is that you literally see the second of their death; identifying the method tends to be the easy part. The challenge here is identifying these people based purely on their name, position aboard the ship, and nationality. You are additionally armed with a few pictures to keep track of familiar faces as you tour these brutal scenes; this game is a complex web where you will have to add up pieces from these many flashbacks to figure out who everyone might be.

The game is presented in a phenomenal 1-bit-inspired art style. The lack of too much detail makes it easy to identify what the game expects you to look at (while still having enough thrown in to mislead, as a good mystery should). It’s also just impressive to see this style in a three-dimension game. This is a throwback to an era I never experienced, but even without that nostalgia, this game is simply gorgeous.

The set-up of the flashbacks is the real meat of the game. Before you witness the death, you are given a short snippet of the sounds leading up to the moment. People will cry out to one another, sometimes placing a specific name within a scene. Then, you enter the diorama, where you are immediately faced with the generally awful death frozen in time. You are then given the freedom to explore this frozen fragment to suss out other information – you need as much information as you can to match names to faces. The game does nothing to hold your hand along the way, leaving it to the player to figure out what is actually important. I’m not exaggerating when I say the only hint to a character’s identity might be their shoes.

This, admittedly, can be frustrating. If this game only involved solving these connections, there might not be enough of a hook to solve the more esoteric cases. After all, why do you, the player, care about these people? Well, like many other great mysteries, there’s a bigger picture which is not immediately evident. Your attention will likely be pulled away from the case at hand as you contemplate the events which transpired aboard the Obra Dinn. This particular case blew my mind, though it’s not a twist ending or anything similar – this revelation happens immediately after what essentially serves as the tutorial and pervades throughout the experience, but I still don’t want to casually ruin that reveal.

As I still want to discuss that moment, be warned that the next paragraph will contain spoilers.

The actual narrative of the ship is told largely in reverse order. The first few bodies are scattered around the captain’s quarters, and it’s clear the ship’s journey ended in a failed mutiny – but what led to this turn is not immediately clear. Then, you find a woman’s body lying in a bed and jump back to her memory, where she’s being hit over the head by the mast as the ship is being attacked by what appears to be a kraken. Immediately, the game jumps from a rather mundane investigation to an almost surreal horror story. While the gameplay is built around the mystery of identifying the people aboard the ship, the actual mystery at the heart of the experience is trying to figure out why these increasingly strange events transpired. Unfortunately, your view of this story is limited to a few moments frozen in time – pieces are missing, but there’s hope that figuring out who these people are might lead to further revelations.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a perfect example of a great video game narrative that simply could not be told in another medium – one might be able to pick up the pieces and tell the same plot, but the experience would be entirely different. This is a story which needs to be played to have its full effect. Mystery is perhaps the best narrative genre for the video game medium. Where other great mystery games like the Ace Attorney and Danganronpa series rely on loads and loads of information expressed through dialogue, Return of the Obra Dinn excels by relying purely on the player’s perception and deduction.

This game will absolutely push your logical analysis to the breaking point – you will likely need to bust out a pen and paper to make sense of everything and keep your thoughts straight. But like any other great mystery, as frustrating as certain moments can get, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as finally putting the pieces together. Return of the Obra Dinn captures that sensation a few dozens of times over. You will be overwhelmed when you see that list of names, but there will come a point where you start pulling a thread and everything starts falling into place. This is one of those great games you will walk away from not with a sense of it having been beaten but conquered.

The Greatest Games: Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Developed by SCE Japan Studio and Team Ico

Shadow of the Colossus is a maximalist minimalist work, a game built around pushing a single concept to its greatest form. This is an action-adventure game with no common enemies to slay, no towns to visit for upgrading your gear, no dungeons to trudge through. This is purely a gauntlet of sixteen magnificent boss fights of ever greater scale.

The story starts simply enough. Protagonist Wander has brought a dead girl to a shrine, where a mysterious voice has told him that she may be revived if he were to slay the sixteen colossi dotting this land. With little more than a sword and his trusty horse, Agro, Wander sets out. The rest of the story is told largely through implication. Something feels a bit off as Wander slays each colossus, as a strange darkness shoots from their body and enters his; what this could mean is never explicated in the moment.

Before I get into the details of the gameplay, this is another game where I need to stop and highlight the soundtrack. Every song perfectly captures the atmosphere of the moment, and the game effortlessly transitions between intimidating boss music and victorious fanfare as Wander finally closes in on a weak point. This is the sort of orchestral music which would fit perfectly in a classic kaiju film. Which, it’s important to note that, outside of cutscenes, fighting the colossi is the only time music plays.

While the game can be boiled down to a string of boss fights, large portions of the player’s time will involve travelling this barren land. Plenty of games with large maps can be criticized if their world is too empty, but Shadow of the Colossus makes an art out of nothingness. The lack of creatures outside of the colossi and a few scattered lizards does as much to suggest a forbidden land as any Soulsborne game with their endless gauntlet of tough enemies. The lack of music during exploration adds to this sense. There’s nothing there to comfort the player as they make the long journey from shrine to colossus. With the realization Wander is there purely to end the only creatures calling this land home, there’s a pervasively melancholy atmosphere.

Wandering up the cliff-side and laying eyes on the first colossus was an experience like no other. Many of the best games work by capturing a sense of confronting what at first seems impossible. This fight in particular offers little challenge (it is essentially the tutorial, after all), yet it captures an undeniably intimidating atmosphere by having us look over and realizing we are being asked to fight something that big. While the game lacks dungeons, this battle makes it clear these colossi and their arenas operate as gigantic puzzles, with an extra sense of urgency since the puzzle is actively trying to kill the player. Yet these colossi are difficult to classify as monsters – there’s beauty in their presence, adding to the feeling that your actions in this game aren’t quite right.

The colossi keep getting bigger and the challenges more complex. It is the way Shadow of the Colossus mixes pure spectacle with truly engaging gameplay that makes it so compelling. The highest points of this experience are the two avian colossi. While most of the colossi present an initial sense of befuddlement, figuring out how to even get a flying enemy in range to jump atop adds another layer. This is where the fanfare really comes into play, as there’s nothing quite like landing a perfectly-timed jump and then being lifted high into the air. This is a game all about climbing and clinging, and that clinging never feels more essential than in these moments.

Shadow of the Colossus succeeds in making each colossi a unique experience. While many are as simple as getting to the head, it is how these arenas allow access that makes each climb different. There are also plenty of colossi which operate in completely different capacities. A few of the colossi are small but quick, their battles more a navigational challenge around an arena. One particularly memorable battle requires Wander to flee atop Agro while turning back to shoot the pursuing colossus in the eye. Most of these colossi achieve a perfect balance of logic and skill, featuring puzzling designs which require great skill even once the player figures out what to do next.

Shadow of the Colossus seemingly strips out every feature but the boss fights – but the truth of the matter is that it pulls off everything expected of an action-adventure game during the fights. This is a game without fluff, focused around one grand idea. Despite this surface simplicity, this is a game of phenomenal depth, hitting upon emotional strands few would expect from a mere boss rush. It says a lot that Sony spent the following decade and a half creating ever more cinematic action-adventure games – and don’t get me wrong, they have done this quite well – yet it is this minimalist story of theirs told largely through subtle changes that hits me the hardest.