I asked the Ontological Geek staff to put together three games each as sort of a “required reading list.” We split the list into three categories:
The Bunker Game: The one game you would have to have in your post-apocalyptic fallout bunker, the one game you could play between fighting off irradiated hell-scorpions and scrounging for water.
The Classroom Game: A game which stands a decent chance at being the best, most wonderful game you’ve ever played — something you’d pick for a classroom to show that Games are Neat.
The Current Game: This is the game you can’t get out of your head right now — a game you are playing a little too much of right now.
Here, in no particular order, are our answers!
Bunker Game: Tetris
If I were stranded on Ancient Desert Pygmy Zombie Raging Dawn of the Monstery Post-Apocalyptic Island and could only manage to take one videogame along with me, I could imagine no better distraction from my days of double-tapping sci-fi clichés and minding my step for all the unmended plot holes than everyone’s favorite Soviet remedy for dystopia’s attendant mental disorders. Besides, zombies are scared to double-plus un-undeath of communism.
Now, granted, Tetris is no paragon (don’t slap me) of immersive storytelling like Mass Effect, and I believe that any attempt to form a sensible backstory for its gameworld would land you with something even more disturbing than Fallout (top score, top score never changes). Nevertheless, Tetris has been my go-to timewaster since I discovered it buried in an old 386’s archeological dig of a hard drive. During my adolescent years, when I needed to wind down after a long day of staring at my crotch and screaming, I’d hone my line-busting, long-skinny-piece-craving skills while listening to the radio or sometimes holding a conversation with a nearby friend. Over time, I became quite adept, not only at Tetris, but at doing other things while at the same time playing Tetris (an approach to productivity I’ve dubbed multitetrising, because I’m clev).
Classroom Game: Chrono Trigger
- A creative, quirky, science-fiction tale set in an offbeat imagining of an alternate universe which doesn’t take itself too seriously, even as the stakes of the plot are driven dreadfully high.
- Features a lovable, unlikely ensemble, complete with cleverly-written, sometimes silly, often adorable dialogue.
- A runaway hit by an all-star development team, produced by a major company in deviation from their standard formula, which was given a controversial sequel and then largely ignored thereafter, even as the fanbase continues to grow and request future installments.
It’s official: Chrono Trigger is the Firefly of gaming, and frankly, it’s no wonder it still manages to excite people nineteen years after its release. Chrono Trigger is the type of game that sticks in your skull – with the kooky, frequently off-modeling presentation of a Saturday morning cartoon, and a story blending the sagely philosophical meandering of Eastern folklore with the stark consequentialism of an Asimov short story, Trigger packs in plenty of that “tension” stuff we’ve geeked off about before.
I find myself returning for a playthrough every couple years or so, and there’s a lot of stuff to rediscover each time: decision-making and multiple endings before they became afternoon milk and cookie-cutters, a twisty-turny central story arc that gets you thinking without inducing a cerebral hemorrhage (the lone sequel, Chrono Cross, is infamous for its impossible-to-follow throughline), and a core time-travel mechanic done right. When the plot fails to compel, there’s always some decidedly whack-a-doo thing happening just out of the spotlight: zany facial expressions, a plethora of literary analogues and references to find, endless sight gags involving cats, and people getting drunk off of soda pop (Thanks, Ted Woolsey!).
It’s just fun. So go check out my all-time favorite game. Time is on your side.
Current Game: League of Legends
Developer Riot Games claims that LoL (They did that on purpose. Ugh.) is the most popular videogame in the world right now, and if that’s a PR exaggeration, it ain’t much of one. League is the current flagship title of the teething “multiplayer online battle arena” genre, which underwent a rather unlikely evolution from a WarCraft III map (In case you didn’t know that, hi, welcome to the Internet!). It’s deep, strategically heavy, fast-paced, flashy, and for the cost-conscious gamers among us: free. You can climb the competitive ranks a little bit faster with a well-placed couple of bucks, but extra flashy colors constitute the only in-game content hidden behind a permanent paywall.
Phenomenon though it may be, I must confess mild annoyance with the League: first, there are only four maps on which to play, and fresh environments are rolled out ever so slowly, largely because the nature of the MOBA beast demands endless hours of meticulous, touchy number-tweaking in order to create balanced new playspaces. Secondly, a steep learning curve combined with one of the most notoriously pissy online communities can lead to some unsavory first bites. Fortunately, Riot manages to keep things fresh by constantly patching, tweaking, and introducing new characters (so many characters!). They’ve also taken an innovative Wikipedia-like approach to emergent online justice, and put the players to work smiting trolls and rewarding one another with achievements for pro-social behavior. Still, that’s cold comfort considering they felt the need to recruit a psychologist and a neuroscientist to serve on the board of a permanent Anti-Dumbass Patrol.
Still, such quibbles haven’t been enough to keep me from draining life force and summoning storms of dread crows all over the Crystal Scar. My username on there is “feezus,” if you’d care to join in sometime. I, for one, promise to play nice.
Bunker Game: Ninja Gaiden Black
I’m taking a stand for Ninja Gaiden Black, because nobody else will. I will not for a moment lie to you, internet. Ninja Gaiden for the XBOX is hard. The game is brutal. The game will make you cry. But at the same time, it can make you feel like a badass, not because you finally unlocked the level that made you stop sucking, but because you finally can play the game well. Ninja Gaiden pushes you, demands the absolute best of you, or tells you to take that weak sauce somewhere else. By the end, you are great at Ninja Gaiden. And in the distance, the drums of the challenge modes begin to rumble.
Ninja Gaiden Black includes a multitude of new challenges, weapons, and continued opportunities for you to use your Ninja Gaiden skills, which run the risk of atrophying with the job market the way it is. The challenge is steep, the game unforgiving and at times deliberately trying to reduce you to tears, but in the end, ninjitsu, like perseverance, is its own reward.
Classroom Game: Hitman: Blood Money
The Hitman series has always made a singular bold promise: multiple, inventive ways to murder people. This promise would naturally lend itself to the sandbox genre, but while previous titles had flirted with sandbox-iness, Blood Money was the first to take the premise home for some hot, steamy, murder simulator-on-sandbox action.
Hitman: Blood Money is like Minecraft, with corpses instead of blocks. The level of inventiveness the game facilitates can be pretty astounding, and the potential for creative ways to kill people is considerable. At higher levels of play, experimentation is not only encouraged, but essential, and the creative potential stored within the game can leave the player feeling like a true professional.
Current Game: Fallout: New Vegas
I had a professor in high school who remarked offhandedly that he is more or less in constant dialog with some philosopher whose name escapes me at the moment (in my defense, the remark was made seven or eight years ago). New Vegas is that kind of game for me. I might go so far as to name it the most important game I’ve ever played, but I value the chance to future-proof myself against the potential next New Vegas. I have sung the praises of New Vegas before, as a tour de force of gaming literature, so I won’t belabor the point much. The game is amazing. And that, dear readers, never changes.
Bunker Game: The Godfather
I love this game. That isn’t a phrase I use all too often. “This game is awesome”, sure, or “I’m enjoying the tits off this one. Like, right off of it,” but very rarely is a game so damn good I fall head over heels. In 2006 EA released The Godfather, a companion piece to the movie in which the player acts as Aldo Trappani, a behind-the-scenes Forrest Gump always popping up at important moments — we accompany Luca Brasi to his final meeting, then have to fight our way out once his aquatic resting place has been arranged. We sneak into Woltz’s house to behead Khartoum. We carry out assassinations while Michael is at the christening, and so on — but never showing up in the movie itself. In practice the game is a GTA–like, a sprawling open-world adventure replete with shootouts and car chases, side-missions and distractions, but it’s one of the finest examples of the genre. Vice City aside, The Godfather is actually superior to anything else in the GTA. Played properly the game clocks in somewhere close to 40 hours for the main storyline, though the Xbox version includes multiple additional challenge modes. I’ve played it through at least four times.
Everything about the game is great. Dressing like a 40’s gangster, gradually stealing territory from the other Families by extorting shopkeepers and racket runners, frantic car chases and Mob Wars that only end up in death or bombing campaigns. Did I mention that you can rob banks? Because I fucking love robbing banks. Presented with a whole world that expects me to dress like a pimp and carry a spruced-up shotgun, I can lose myself for days at a time. It may not be artsy or ask any deep and meaningful questions about the state of the soul (other than ‘who wants to see me set this guy on fire and throw him out of a window?’), but The Godfather is more fun than a several barrels of greased-up monkeys. Restricted to only playing one video game again in my life, there’s no choice at all.
Classroom Game: Portal & Portal 2
I’m cheating a little on this entry by counting two games as my classic, but come on; Portal is only little. It needs a friend along for moral support, and the way the two titles work together make them seem more like a single experience than two separate titles. The sequel manages to recapture the atmosphere of the original perfectly, yet still include a variety of new features and an expanded narrative without any sensation that one aspect has been tacked-on unnecessarily. It’s always seemed odd to me that when the topic of games as art rears its head, supporters will invariably reference titles like Braid or Journey as examples of gaming transcending the general perceptions of ‘shoot all the dudes’, and poor old Portal doesn’t get a mention despite the title’s overwhelming popularity. Perhaps everyone is just really, really tired of the cake meme.
Portal has interesting, amusing, memorable characters. It has gameplay which requires thought rather than mere persistence. The player is mostly trapped within a tiny, self-contained world and starved of information not pertaining to the specific task at hand yet through the environment we are still able to piece together fragments of the wider universe and the history of Chell’s captors. Even Cave Johnson’s lunatic rants, aside from being pants-wettingly hilarious, offer glimpses into the downfall of the outside world in amongst the citrus based threats. Unlike many of those frequently touted as triumphant examples, the Portal games do not feature the usual hallmarks and clues to broadcast that yes, this game is art and you should appreciate it as such. No soft and ethereal music, a distinct lack of meaningful quotations presented in bold white font against a black backdrop, total avoidance of weighty guilt in the backstory of an otherwise cheerful character or deep emotional revelations about the players themselves. Characters change and grow and learn, some truly bleak moments are juxtaposed with moments of hilarity, and every player comes away with a smile on their face. The gaming community doesn’t seem to speak of the Portal series as works of art in their own right, but we ought to.
Current Game: Gyromancer
2009’s Gyromancer is, to put it mildly, bloody strange. Building off the back of the Puzzle Quest series, Gyromancer is a collaborative effort from the unlikely bedfellows of Square-Enix and PopCap, weaving traditional JRPG elements like crap storytelling, level grinding and Pokemon-style monster collection around a turn-based puzzle battle system which makes absolutely no attempt to hide the fact that it’s Bejewelled Twist wearing a more confrontational hat. The game is extremely minimalist, with the non-combat sections being a series of short maze-like levels through which a small model of our hero moves as if he were animated in the early days of South Park, containing little more than three tiers of monster (basic, intermediate and boss) alongside chests which hide coins or items and new battle monsters to collect. There really isn’t a whole lot happening on the visual side – even during combat the monsters remain static, the only movement being the shifting of gems on the board and occasionally a creature’s “attack” represented by a beam of coloured light.
Despite or perhaps because of this scaled-back presentation, the game is hugely enjoyable. The lack of combat animations leaves the player free to focus on the gems undistracted, and the small linear nature of the maps make collecting all the secrets and monsters straightforward. The storyline is endearingly rubbish, as heroic mage Rivel Arday searches a haunted forest for rebels and the lost prince of the realm – the ridiculous names, character designs and dialogue will have veteran JRPG players smiling fondly – but is easily ignored, being nothing more than a bare-bones attempt to pad out the brief periods in which giant monsters aren’t chucking lasers at one another. While the battle system is easy to pick up at first, this simplicity gives way to greater levels of depth as the game continues: certain monsters have an affinity to certain gem colours opening the possibility of stimying the opponent by turning their own affinity against them, so-called “idle twists” can be disastrous in the latter stages as the AI-controlled creatures become more deadly, and a variety of special gem types such as stones or movement-locked gems will often require frantic strategy to overcome. In the grand old tradition of PopCap the game is only slightly less addictive than crack, and will keep players hanging on for one more battle long after they should have gone to bed. It certainly isn’t the prettiest game, and it isn’t going to win any screenwriting awards, but I’ve been unable to stop myself from turning back to re-play completed levels and pick up every little thing.
Bunker Game: Go
It’s been said that everyone should read the novel Don Quixote three times: in youth, adulthood, and old age. It grows as the reader grows, unfolding in richness, subtlety, humor, and sublimity. It’s the sort of work that seems to encompass the whole of human experience, providing a bottomless well to draw from. Are there any videogames that can say the same? I haven’t played any. Presuming I had another player to play with, I would probably bring the boardgame Go.
Classroom Game: Dear Esther
The game that recently stunned me, knocked me off my chair and got me thinking about what games could be was Dear Esther. Dear Esther nearly disregarded player agency altogether, but in doing so emphasized a new kind of player experience, in which players were guided along an infinite loop, reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, and prompted to interior, rather than exterior activity.
The core of the game, rather than revolving around player choice, consisted of players coming to terms with the actions that they were entreated to repeat over and over, as the game called them to “Come back” to the beginning. This recursion or circularity at the heart of Dear Esther is incredible fodder for interpretation. Personally, I can’t help but see the game as a physical reenactment of the Christ’s passion, dark night, abandonment and death, made manifest in the cyclical suffering of every individual life. The game manages to use the player’s performance to symbolically merge the suffering of each specific person to the cosmic, universal suffering of God made Man. In doing so, Dear Esther offers a remote but tangible premonition of hope, without preaching or pontificating. Never has gaming been so bold.
Current Game: Dishonored
At the moment, I’m in the middle of Dishonored, and as a sneaky bastard of a player, I’m certainly enjoying it. Oddly enough, though, what I’m most impressed by is the world design, and the creator’s commitment to a universe that feels tangible, plausible, immersive, and original. It’s a rare thing when one could immediately imagine a novel set within a game’s universe.
My complaint with the game, weirdly enough, is that it doesn’t seem to encourage truly diverse playstyles within a single playthough. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m taking the game at its word when it says that a more violent playthrough will result in a darker ending. Since I usually try for the “good” endings first, and I enjoy the sneaking, I’m attempting a mostly bloodless run. I’ve been finding that this is pretty boring. Why doesn’t the game promote three play styles: killing machine, silent assassin, and ghost, so that people who like to sneak while they kill can get their kicks?
Bunker Game: Mass Effect 3
I’ve written about my relationship with Mass Effect before. If I can’t take the entire series with me into my bunker, then the third is it. The series speaks to my wondering and wandering self like no other has; if nothing else, I’d take it just to listen to “Uncharted Worlds” on loop. That song is a gateway to exploration for me – it makes me instantly curious. It makes me want to be in space. It’s my favorite music in any video game, ever.
Mass Effect 3, as the finale to my favorite gaming trilogy, was huge for me. It offered a rewarding journey alongside some of my best digital friends. It felt like good sci-fi, addressing issues of identity, race, and war via a rich vision of a compelling future. It presented questions, but wasn’t afraid to withhold answers, pointing instead beyond its own scope. It successfully concluded an epic.
Mass Effect 3 also marks the first multiplayer experience I’ve gotten really involved with. I still don’t track patch notes, but I have strong opinions on the best way to play certain characters. It successfully mixes a fun, and easily resettable, class system, incredible weapon diversity, and breathless survival-focused cooperative gameplay. It is, in short, perfect for me, and I’m not convinced I’ll ever get tired of it.
Classroom Game: Journey
Journey is, above all else, elegant. What it offers is minimal in traditional features, but deeper in experience. One of Journey’s greatest accomplishments is in realizing a digital landscape rich enough for reflection. My relationship with the spaces of Journey is alive; its deserts, caves and mountains are incredibly realized, and they have a verisimilitude that comes partially from their vivid presence, but also from the absence of explicit goals and other “distractions.” It becomes a meditative experience, then, that gives the player time to look inward. It is also a game in which exploration and simple discovery is the most compelling reason for playing.
Of course, Journey also leads me into compelling relationships with strangers. Again, minimalism serves the game, turning the often-sour experience of interacting with a stranger over the Internet into an ineffable one. It allows the player to experience another player as an other being; it minimizes the difference, and, I’ve found, opens the way for a surprising sense of companionship, even compassion. I’ve cared for my journey(wo)men more in Journey than I’ve ever mustered for a stranger in another game experience, and that’s incredible.
Current Game: Dark Souls
I’ve written about Dark Souls as well, but that article came at the beginning of my time with the game. Now that I’ve finished it, I find myself with dozens of things to say about it; I’m trying to collect them all into a long-form project loosely strung about Campbell’s mono-myth, so that’s one reason why I continue to return to the world.
But that’s hardly the only reason why. I think that Dark Souls is one of the most important games I’ve ever played for many, many reasons. I think it works very well as a myth. I think it reconnects to a time in my childhood when I didn’t know how to play video games, before I was conversant in the language of gaming; Lordran requires a whole other level of acclimation, which is something I haven’t had to do with a game in ages. I think that the fact that I just referred to the continent that I inhabit in Dark Souls as an actual place is telling. It says that I care about the world and it’s lore, which is a feat for any game, and it did so by making me own my discoveries and revelations. It says that it works extremely well as a location. I have drawn maps of the dungeons and asylums in Dark Souls – for my project, yes, but also for Dungeons and Dragons sessions, and because it’s fun.
Basically, I don’t think I’ve ever played another game that actually made me love another cosmology and land before. But I’m very much in love with Lordran, and I relish my time there.
Bunker Game: Discworld MUD
The Discworld MUD is a text-based online multiplayer game based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I’ve been playing Discworld pretty regularly since 2004, with a character that has racked up about 150 days of age. Despite that, I remain very much in the lower-middle range of skills and have plenty of growing to do. I certainly won’t be running out of things to do while trapped in this post-apocalyptic bunker. I’m already involved in guild politics and am editor of one of the two in-game newspapers, but there’s potential to get into international politics as a Magistrate, run a shop, own a home, not to mention developing my character or perhaps starting up a new one. If all else fails there are millions of rooms to explore.
What really sways it for me is that Discworld is hugely social. Being stuck in my sad little bunker will at least be alleviated by happily chatting away to the witty, strange, arrogant and hilarious folk who make up its small but perfectly formed community. Long as the Internet connection holds, out anyway…
Classroom Game: Metal Gear Solid
MGS changed games, MGS changed me. I’ll never forget the rising excitement with which I read previews, the demo that got me twitching like an addict who needs a fix, building to the explosion of joy I felt when the game was finally released. For me, MGS was the first game whose storyline, gameplay and details all aligned into a singular, rounded playing experience. Previously games seemed to have sketched out plots intended to give a reason for gameplay, or patchy gameplay built as an excuse to tell a story through a game. MGS was one of those glorious moments when everything comes together perfectly.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. But looking back on some of the great moments, the game’s opening sequence, the boss fights (special mention to Revolver Ocelot and Grey Fox), abseiling down the tower under helicopter fire, the torture scene, the final fistfight with Liquid Snake atop a burning Metal Gear, and many in between, I’m left breathless. More than any other game before or since, MGS exuded excitement. It may not be the most arty of games, but it’s easily the most cool.
Current Game: Far Cry 3
I’m playing through Far Cry 3 right now, and ought to be far enough in to have plenty to say, but to be quite honest I’m struggling to have much in the way of an opinion. It’s enjoyable enough to play, I haven’t switched it off in frustration as I did Far Cry 2, and it features the odd moments of breath-taking beauty, violent hilarity and nervous tension that make it very worthwhile. What I sense myself doing while I play, though, is switching off. This is clearly a game that’s meant to have a shocking and challenging message, but I find myself playing somewhat brainlessly. Switch on, relax, come to a few missions later and have some dinner. That’s not necessarily a criticism — we all need something a little light now and then. But once I put Far Cry 3 down, I don’t see myself ever thinking of it again.
Bunker Game: Twine
I’m going to cheat — Twine isn’t technically a game so much as a mechanism with which you can build games, a free and simple program for the creation of hypertext fiction. I’ve written a (very silly) game and a review in Twine, and have played several games by other people, and am floored by the amount of potential in it. I’ve played very personal games about trying to understand one’s sexual orientation, ridiculous games about fleeing from BDSM cannibals, and, best of all, howling dogs. If I can only take one thing with me into the bunker, a tool which allows me to create that sort of neat stuff is a pretty good choice.
Classroom Game: Planescape: Torment
First, the bad: Torment is clunky, even by Infinity Engine standards. The combat, while often optional, is shallow and repetitive. The Infinity Engine’s strict conversion of 2nd edition AD&D was always kind of bizarre, but it really isn’t great for Torment. Sometimes, Torment feels more like a Baldur’s Gate mod than its own game. When people tell me they can’t get into Torment, I understand wholeheartedly.
But none of that matters, because Torment features some of the most interesting narratives, characters and ideas you’ll find in videogames and fantasy/science fiction literature as a whole. Awaking on a slab in the mortuary, covered in scars, without a name or any memories, you have to find out who you are, what’s chasing you, and why, exactly, you can’t seem to die. All the while searching for an answer to the question: “What can change the nature of a man?”
I could gush for hours about Torment, so I’ll just rattle off a few of my favorite parts: Fall-From-Grace, the chaste succubus who runs the Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts; telling enough people that your name is Adahn that a person by that name actually springs into existence; every time you realize that some stranger actually knows you very well, you just don’t remember him; the truth behind Dak’kon’s holy Circle; Mark Morgan’s wonderful score; Morte, the talking skull who is not half the comic relief he seems. Torment is usually super cheap on GOG or Steam — if you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. It (along with Final Fantasy Tactics and, of course, Baldur’s Gate) is one of the games that taught me that videogames could Mean Things.
Current Game: Civilization V
Civilization V is a deep, deep hole, and I am down in the bottom of it. I spent last night as Haile Selassie, repelling Persian and Siamese invaders from my Ethiopian borders, while also cultivating relationships with numerous city-states to gain their diplomatic favor. I was beaten by the Arabian Empire under the leadership of Harun al-Rashid, who constructed his spaceship eight turns before I would almost certainly have won a diplomatic victory after constructing the United Nations and winning a vote. I lost after approximately six hours of play, but don’t think of the time as wasted. That should be a ringing enough endorsement there, I think.
Civ is a phenomenal strategy game, and it also gives rise to sentences like “Montezuma has constructed the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Munich.” It appeals to my desire for unusual juxtapositions — it’s like playing mashup fanfic with the entirety of human history. I never really stopped playing Civ IV, and now that I have V, well, I have to set timers to remember to eat.
Incidentally, the Ontological Geek is playing a game of Civ V this Saturday, 2÷2÷13, if you’d care to join us. Details are here.