I’ve been holding off a Cage resurrection for a year or two now, but with the upcoming release of Joe, which I already have booked to see, it seems that the Man of the Taut Face will be returning very soon indeed. In the meantime, I thought that I would provide you all with a list of my favourite games of all time (as of the moment of writing). Frankly, this is much easier to compile than a list of my favourite films of all time, since most games are absolutely terrible! In no particular order, then:
#10 Super Smash Brothers (N64, Nintendo, 1999)
The cornerstone of the relationship between my brother and I, Super Smash Bros. is a little different to your regular fighting game (Street Fighter; Tekken; Dead or Alive; etc.) since the characters are often dwarfed by their environments, meaning that game-play is as much about platforming and long-range weapons as it is close-quarter fighting. That said, this is a fighting game, but it’s deceptively simple. Keeping track of frame data and memorising long button combinations won’t be of much help here since you’re mostly reliant on the A and B buttons, a joystick direction, a throw, a jump and a shield – plus any extra items or weapons that you manage to acquire. As such, the game play is mainly about learning your opponent’s fighting style as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your own and other characters. In one-on-one games this means there is a lot of wary distance keeping, although with 4 players in the mix things tend to turn into an all out brawl. In the later instalments in the series overly complex levels and general business means the screen becomes easily cluttered making play confusing and chaotic; however, in the N64 original, things are kept fairly sparse and it is easy to keep track of what is going on. My brother was mainly Samus (or Link) and I was mainly Yoshi (or Kirby) since my brother liked fast-play, darting back and forth, while I preferred to lurk about on the tops of trees and platforms and attempt aerial attacks. This must have been agonising for any friends who came over who didn’t own a copy of the game (and it was always more fun as a multiplayer – playing alone felt sad and mechanical) since they’d just be unfairly pummelled, but I genuinely believe that my relationship with my brother wouldn’t be half as fond if it weren’t for long sessions fighting together on the N64.
Of course, all the characters are from Nintendo games (mostly obvious choices but as an English gamer Ness from Earthbound was completely unfamiliar to me) so a certain fondness for the company probably helps enjoyment. There was a certain thrill to seeing beloved characters beat the stuffing out of each other, especially when they were meant to be allies, brothers or generally amicable. There was lots of fun to be had pausing the game at particularly pugilistic moments. The graphics were vectory, but the art was colourful and appealing. The music – often stemming from previous Nintendo classics – was uniformly excellent and added greatly to the concept of a holistic Nintendo universe. The latter games are pretty shameless about this branded self-mythologising, but it didn’t appear offensive in the original.
Finally, while the game is perfect to pick-up-and-play it has a surprising amount of depth, lending itself to tournament play. Since the game is so airy and bright, it doesn’t feel like a slog to practise with and it’s unlikely to turn you into a homicidal maniac (Mortal Kombat), a stats geek (Tekken) or a pervert (Dead or Alive).
#9 Worms Armageddon (N64 and PC, Team17, 1999)
The Worms games are curious little beasts, violent but goofy. Your team consists of a little squadron of worms and your aim is to destroy the other teams of worms with a melange of ludicrous and deadly weapons. The original game was intended as a parody of the gulf war and is surprisingly bleak in atmosphere and graphics. You wage your battles over blasted terrain while the desolate howl of wind churns in the background. It’s very effective but Team17 clearly realised that a lighter, more cartoony aesthetic would make their series more appealing.
As such, Worms Armageddon is a thoroughly daffy affair, with squidgy semi-anthropomorphized worms with a host of dubiously stereotyped comedic accents. To be honest, the comedy leaves me a little cold, but the gameplay is – personally speaking – unrivalled among multi-player games. For a game with such a daft premise, there is a surprising degree of tactical depth to Worms. The design is elegant and simply. The gameplay is turn based. You can either choose to defensively burrow your worms away or protect them with girders, or else fire bazookas, homing missiles and grenades towards the enemy in the hope that they’ll hit. Of course, a good player strategically balances these two approaches.
The game comes together when players start to pre-plan their moves and combine weapons to achieve outlandish aims. One might build a structure with girders across a couple of turns, use a ninja rope to pull a worm up to the structure, then drop a grenade down upon an enemy worm below. More delightful, is when a perfectly orchestrated plan comes to nought due to a shift in the wind, or a wrong button accidentally pressed. I’ve never played a game in which disastrous wrong moves are so hilarious. In short, it’s a competitive game that rarely engenders bad feelings. It is a lot of fun to play, rewards practice and includes imaginative weapons such as flying super sheep (with capes) and holy hand grenades. As long as one does not mind war being taken with a liberal pinch of salt, then it stands alongside Heroes of Might and Magic as the peak of turn-based multi-player gaming.
#8 Simon the Sorcerer (PC, Adventuresoft, 1993)
This was absolutely my favourite game as a child and it retains a lot of charm. You play Simon, a snarky teenaged wizard voiced by Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf. You traverse a magical land full of slightly disreputable stock fantasy characters in order to save the world and return home. There’s a self-effacing banality-cum-smallness to proceedings that never undercuts the magic of the high fantasy, which is a tricky balance to achieve and pulled off wonderfully. Because of this Simon the Sorcerer reminds me most of the Discworld book series by Terry Pratchett, which I also lapped up when I was in my pre-adolescence. There is less social satire and pub philosophy in Simon than in the Discworld books, but it feels equally affable and good-natured, despite the occasional moment of slapstick violence or innuendo. In this sense, it carries on a British seaside tradition that ranges from pantomime to Monty Python. It feels like the creators are only ever play acting at being rude or squalid, which never quite tips over into the genuinely nasty Punch & Judy or The Meaning of Life (I’m fond of both, but neither could be said to be wholesome).
The puzzles tend towards the lateral rather than the logic. There are a certain amount of object collection quests, but generally puzzles are a matter of inventively using an object in your inventory upon an object in the environment. Such puzzles have come in for a great deal of scorn over the last decade, but personally I think they play a vital part in the immersion these games provide. You are required to actively engage with your environment, remaining ever alert for useful objects, or places where objects might come in useful. It empowers the imaginative to be able to transform objects to your own curious purposes – using a watermellon to block up a sousaphone, for instance. It helps divest objects of their labels and allows you to see them more in terms of their qualities – weight; texture; taste; shape – than their utilitarian function. It this sense, classic adventure games are engaged in a transformative surrealist agenda – stripping objects of tired associations for radical re-purposings! I suspect that my love of stop-motion artists like Jan Švankmajer derives partly from my early experiences with adventure games.
The host of colourful characters you meet in the game are brought to life with wonderfully lively voice acting and some genuinely beautiful pixel art. The game looks hand crafted and there is a real sense of a living, breathing environment, even with the limited graphics. The forest scenes remain especially vivid in my memory and the rinky-dink MIDI music helped cement these images in my mind.
I imagine that if I discovered Simon the Sorcerer today, rather than as a 12-year-old, I would be considerably less besotted. However, the fact of the matter is that I was lucky enough to discover this charming game at an early age and it was an essential part of my childhood, for which I will always be thankful to Adventuresoft, even in spite of the hideous disappointment of Simon the Sorcerer 3D.
#7 Pacman (Arcade, Namco, 1980)
“Video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence. For the moment, the inseparable philosophy of our time is contained in the Pac-Man. I didn’t know when I was sacrificing all my hundred yen coins to him that he was going to conquer the world. Perhaps because he is the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate. He puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment. And he tells us soberly that though there may be honor in carrying out the greatest number of victorious attacks, it always comes a cropper.” (Chris Marker, Sans Soleil)
#6 The Games of Stephen Lavelle (PC, 2004-2014)
I have a deep fondness for aggressively pretentious arty queer micro-games. Stephen Lavelle (increpare) is probably my favourite creator. With his stuff, it’s probably best just to immerse yourself Blue Jam listening style at 3.00 a.m. and binge, but I highly recommend his minimalist-formalist stuff and the grim and powerful games around violence. If the name of a game suggests a trigger warning might be needed, you’ll probably be right. I don’t know how much he respects his players. He clearly thinks in games though, in terms of systems and mathematical elegance. He’s not just taking ideas from film or literature and shoehorning them into an interactive narrative in a desperate bid for arty kudos. Nasty, tiny, elegant little things.
To my first born son – deconstruct the house of patriarchy!
Slave of God is a glitchcore club simulator and should almost definitely not be played if you have photosensitive epilepsy. Puts the willies up me.
Puzzles is a work of very clever design and an example of Lavelle’s formalism at its best.
Promises is an eerie little logic game like a quiet nightmare of an Amiga game.
Oíche Mhaith reminds me of Blue Jam in that it is a little daft and glib, but also simultaneously moving. Exploitative but earnest. I am not sure about its characterisation of the Irish family. Deeply, shatteringly sad, but ridiculous.
Untris – backwards Tetris.
American Dream – the dark heart of capitalism! Now 200x more addictive! Collect stuff! Buy shares in celebrities! Do insider trading at wild sex parties! The Wonder Showzen of games!
whale of noise – a genuinely relaxing and meditative underwater experience using tones.
Hush – a clever little experiential metaphor. Play it.
The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights – really troubled me. Trigger warning. Juddery. Serious warning – don’t play if you are feeling delicate.
Therapy Game – a tiny little narrative game. Slight but worth while for 2 mins.
Theatrics – absolutely brilliant. Puzzles can be solved either through narratology or through logic, but really shows how the former is dependent on the latter. Not really a story creation tool, though that’s what it looks like. Quiet the opposite, in fact. Really like this one.
Home – an empathetic experiment in very limited interaction. I like it, but many don’t.
Almudy Park – a very limited adventure game, but a sad one.
Judith – deservedly famous. A first person retelling of Bluebeard that looks like Doom.
Opera Omnia – I think this one is really intelligent and just beyond me somehow.
(Also of them are worth playing although Brain Damage is genuinely very nasty and sub/conscious, while using Google as a clever metaphor in action for deviant desires, hijacks your computer to search for increasingly inappropriate / illegal pornography, which I think is unethical)
#5 Monkey Island 1, 2 and 3 (PC, Lucasarts, 1990, 1991 and 1997)
The most wonderful sea-salty adventures with wit and charm and giddy humour galore! You play Guybrush Threepwood, a slightly hapless yet plucky young pirate, as he seeks fame and fortune on a bunch of eclectic islands. He’s an absolutely amicable character and these games are filled filled with good-natured jokes and curious, semi-logical puzzles. The graphics became increasingly lush over the three games, with the third game The Curse of Monkey Island standing out as a triumph of art design.
Each installement has its own unique charms. The Secret of Monkey Island is the most tightly plotted and introduces some of the series’ most famous staples, such as insult sword fighting. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge is the darkest and strangest, with a mind-warping ending that felt deeply wrong and unsettling when I first placed it many, many years ago. The Curse of Monkey Island is the lightest and most laid-back and was the first in the series to introduce voice acting.
The first two games have been re-released for PC and Wii with additional voice acting and updated graphics so if you are yet to play them, you have a joyous few days of gaming ahead!
Finally, the music in all three games is exemplary. The opening theme song still brings shivers up my spine.
#4 Photopia (PC, Adam Cadre, 1998)
Arguably Photopia is more of an immersive story than a game, since it is utterly linear and it contains no puzzles. However, the medium (in this case, that of parser-based interactive fiction) is essential to the experience of the work as one leaps between the consciousness of different characters to better understand a terrible, unseen tragedy at the story’s heart. You circle around this tragedy at different levels of intimacy and distance and through this experience you grow to understand the work’s central protagonist.
Cadre, who writes in a slightly heightened form of naturalism, is great at quickly plunging you into different worlds and bodies to inhabit. Voices are clear and recognizable. The small worlds are easily mapped. The whole game is colour-coded in primary red, greens and blues, which works beautifully thematically, structurally and symbolically and is tied together by the story’s end.
Personally, I find it a deeply moving, humanistic work. It was my first experience with interactive fiction as a young adult after years away from playing text-only adventure games as a young child and rekindled my interest in the medium. It replies on simply verb-noun combinations which might be confusing to a novice player, but Cadre provides a useful help section, so really Photopia should be accessible to any player willing to put forward just a little bit of work.
Cadre’s later games are also brilliant. Varicella is a nasty historic farce, with a gratifying puzzle design, though it takes many, many playthroughs to complete. Shrapnel was a little rushed to completion, but is intoxicatingly atmospheric and very clever. Endless; Nameless is a fascinating meta-fictional reflection on the evolution of the medium and is a sophisticated work of considerable intellectual and emotional depth. However, Photopia is why Cadre is known and beloved.
Please play it here: http://pr-if.org/play/photopia/
#3 Pathologic (PC, Ice-Pick Lodge, 2005)
A maddening, horrible, angst-inducing experience. Pathologic is a grim, Russian survival sim about attempting to survive a plague, fighting against the inexorable forward march of death. The translation is terrible, which gives dialogue its own warped poetry. The graphics are limited, which means that fog obscured everything and faces are uncanny, which is absolutely how things should be. It is very, very hard and involves a lot of walking. Personally, I find it to be the single most atmospheric game I’ve ever played. The town feels contaminated. Abject. The soundtrack is sublime. Odd chants and percussive noises. In short, Pathologic is like a more talky, art-house rigorously existentialist Silent Hill 2. Ice-Pick Lodge are currently developing a more polished version but in many ways I don’t even know if I want to play a more polished version.
I would highly recommend buying Pathologic here even if to play it through with a walkthrough.
#2 Grim Fandango (PC, Lucasarts, 1998)
The most sublime, classy, stylish game I have ever had the privilege to play. You journey through an art-deco underworld of sassy, louche skeletons as Manuel “Manny” Calavera, travel agent to the dead. There are many memorably, zany characters, but really it’s the atmosphere that stays with you, especially Rubacava, a city of jazz bars, petty gangsters and cat racing.
With a few exceptions, the puzzles are gratifying and make sense. The locations are a joy to explore and inhabit. The music is slinky and impossibly cool. The graphics may seem limited today, but the ‘Day of the Dead’ inspired art designs ensures that the boxiness looks deliberate and stylish, not crummy.
It’s a game I feel a little bit emotional describing, such are my fond feelings towards it. Really, it is a masterpiece. A masterpiece in spite of clunky controls and a few illogical puzzles (although, frankly, logic is over-rated).
If one is not a gamer, it would be well-worth simply watching it through as a movie. I would love to see a stop-motion version directed by Henry Selick one day.
#1 Half-Life 2 (PC, Valve, 2004)
I do not enjoy first-person shooters. I don’t like killing people and I find the mechanic dull and repetitive. So, it’s something of a small miracle that Half-Life 2 is my favourite game of all time. Simply, it is a masterpiece of design. Everything is so carefully considered and plotted. As Gordon Freeman, I kept wanting to keep pushing the story forward. The world had been over-run with a cruel alien intelligence and I knew that as a Black Mesa employee I was partly to blame. As Freeman you spend months (maybe years) underground, given weapons and help by a hidden stream of shadowy, fatigued comrades, only to emerge overground in glimpses to catch fragments of the devastation to the planet and the human resistance fighting back.
The game doesn’t play like a beef-headed macho fantasy though. There are long reflective passages and periods of experimenting quietly with gravity and levers. The action is violent and intense, but not brain-dead. The fascistic cruelty of the aliens is firmly established. Valve don’t just reply upon an a-priori hatred of Nazis or the Vietcong or Iraqis to justify the bloodshed. You start the game disempowered. Without the weapon. You are subject to bullying, beating and tedious queuing. When you finally find a crowbar, you feel convincingly justified in fighting back. You are put in the position of the oppressed, rather than the oppressors.
Indeed, Valve are brilliant at gratifying power reversal. Making the player feel disempowered, only to reverse the situation at the optimum moment. There is a weapon in the game called a gravity gun. You can pick up objects with it and fire them. For a while, it is the bane of your life. Then you get hold of one. Likewise, in a level in which you traverse great stretches of beach, laying down planks of driftwood to carefully walk across to avoid touching the sand, the creatures that live beneath – sandlions – are your mortal enemy. They are skittish and terrifying. Then you get a bulbous seed-pod and can control an army of sandlions. The tides have turned.
In short, it is a wonderfully well-balanced game. The story is simple, tight but compelling. The action is engaging. The characters convincing. It is a very polished game and I have put it as #1 because, even while it may not be my personal favourite game, I can think of no way I would improve it. My personal experience with the game was flawless.
Here is my friend Hamish talking very eloquently about part of the design of Half Life 2:
This list is by no means inclusive.
In terms of sardonic, bloody-minded fun Bullfrog’s wonderful Theme Park (1994), Theme Hospital (1997) and Dungeon Keeper 2 (1999) have kept me entertained for hours. Theme Hospital in particular is bracingly cynical and has a very inventive host of diseases and conditions to treat – slack tongue; bloaty head syndrome; an illness that makes its sufferers impersonate Elvis. It even includes a mini-game in which you get to shoot rats!
I’m also very fond of many classic adventure games. In terms of Lucasarts’ output, Day of the Tentacle (1993) has some of the most sophisticated puzzle design, involving sending objects into the past and into the future to complete puzzles. It is also cheerily dystopian and edutaining on the topic of American history! Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993) was revelatory for me as a child, with its arch commentary on naff American consumerism and tacky tourist destinations. It’s meta-commentary on the medium of the adventure games was often surprisingly savage, with great little in-jokes for connoisseurs of the genre. Finally, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) holds its own against the films, while Full Throttle (1995) is highly cinematic and felt thrillingly adult as a child.
In terms of non-Lucasarts games, I only played Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express (1997) last year, but I found it was fascinating and involved. The time period of the eve of the First World War was convincingly realised and the art nouveau train interior – the setting of the game – was elegant, rich and gilded. The conversation was sophisticated and the mechanic of having everything occur in real-time gave a sense of immediacy and anxiety to proceedings. It was also wonderfully morally nuanced, with even the playable character on the run from the law for a political murder. The Neverhood (1996) is as tactile and doughy as the soaps from Lush. The Christian sub-text is interesting rather than irritating and the technicolour world of clay feels fully realised. The music, which is a nonsense, squidgy, mush-mouthed blues, is fantastic. Sadly, the creator seems to be a homophobe, which I’m glad I didn’t know at the time, but has put me off emotionally (or financially) investing in the coming sequel. Sanitarium (1998) is nutty and ambitious, with some hilarious B-movie dialogue… “Cyclops babies! In bottles?!” It doesn’t add up to much, but what fun! Machinarium (2009) is a haywire, lovingly-crafted delight, with a specifically Czech charm. It is heart-warming and beautiful. Finally, although I find much of Sierra’s output po-faced and nit-pitcky, Police Quest II: The Vengeance was enjoyably hard-boiled and a joy to play with my friend Jen. The game felt gritty, but not nihilistic, and it left me with a weird respect for law enforcement I had never felt before. In a very different vein, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder and King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow are colourful, pleasing games that make the hours fly by. The latter is arguably the best game Sierra ever released.
In terms of experimental indie titles, I am loathe to call Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death (Geisterfahrer) a game per se, since it really functions as a game creation tool-kill. Essentially it allows one to play custom built two-player stories, with one person controlling just the playable character, with the other person controls all the NPCs and the backgrounds. It is something that could be done with pen and paper and, in fact, is essentially a very loose form of table-top role-playing. However, the experience of improvising together with a friend over two computers is a thrilling and often hilarious one. Playing it with my friends led to many memorable adventures involving hungry wolves, a sad-sack comedian, a suicide at a business conference, and many others. If anyone reading this would like to play Sleep is Death with me, I’d love to.
I still have a big place in my heart for text-only games and interactive fiction. Emily Short’s games are always deeply humanistic and touching. Her interactive story Bee about a young spelling Bee champion is one of my favourites. Andrew Plotkin’s Shade is the best interactive episode of the Twilight Zone one might imagine. Porpentine is a rare techno-genius and her games deserve to be in the list, but they defy easy description and I am a coward. Howling Dogs and their angelic understanding map a pathway to the future. I earnestly recommend them without caveat.
I have previously made two other lists of games if you, dear reader, enjoyed this post.
Here is my list of my favourite games on GOG.com which can be bought and downloaded directly from the site: http://www.gog.com/mix/peculiar_and_original_games
Here is my list of some of the weirdest games of all-time, some of which are free. Do, by all means, investigate: http://www.listchallenges.com/weirdest-video-games
Of course, after all that, we all really know that the best game of all time is The Life of D Duck.
P.S. A reminder from my friend Alex Maisey that I should have included Valve’s wonderful Portal (2007) which is a brilliant example of a game doing something unthinkable in another medium – allowing you to experience space in a different way. Likewise, Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008) helped me to understand the concept of non-linear time / time travel better than anything since Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse 5 as a young teen.