As I looked back over the past year’s worth of entries, I realized I didn’t play nearly as many games as I thought. This illusion comes from a mix stopping and starting a handful of titles, devoting time to games I put down due to their sheer time commitment (someday, Baldur’s Gate!), and my rediscovery of the medium making every new game feel like an epic undertaking.
So, picking my five favorite games covered on this blog was not nearly the Sophie’s Choice I thought it might be. Sure, there were a handful of darlings I regret not including: The Saturday morning whizzbang joy of Psychonauts. The moody and punishing Another World. Braid’s deeply felt and fully realized puzzle box. But at the end of the day, these five games below are the ones that kept me going as I slogged through lesser titles. These are the games that still prove to me despite the industry’s deeply embedded problems and presiding adolescence, video games are so unique and powerful when the alchemy’s right that they are worth defending and talking about.
I’m still early in my quest. I have so many more games to experience — and there are more by the day, being created by an ever-diversifying community now that technology and distribution has dissipated — that a second anniversary top-five might look entirely different. I am presenting these in alphabetical order, because pitting five things I hold so dearly against each other in some misguided battle of worth seems like a fool’s errand.
Chrono Trigger (1995): Chrono Trigger is a difficult game to discuss because its main assets — charm, whimsy, a welcoming good-heartedness — are entirely rooted in the abstract. I have trouble drawing a clear line from the game’s mechanics and form to its emotional impact, but if I had to sum it up, I’d say it works because Chrono Trigger believes in its own magic. Whether it’s mystified by its famously eerie floating city or illustrating the positive causality of the player’s time traveling, Trigger is always wide-eyed but never overly earnest. It wants you to come play, and shows you the results of that play through altering its world map and characters. Its universe feels open and malleable, right down to the final boss who can be faced at any time. Yet perhaps due to its technical limitations, it’s never sprawling, always preferring the tight, focused, and tonally consistent route. Plus, you can alter the future so everybody’s a dinosaur, which alone earns it a spot on this list.
Half-Life 2 (2004): The Half-Life games take the phrase “power fantasy” and make it a compliment instead of a dirty word. Half-Life 2 thoroughly transforms the player from scared, demeaned citizen to accomplished rebel leader. It’s a hero’s journey worthy of any medium, but told so thoroughly through the language of play that its cliches and simple dystopian story are once again exhilarating and vital. Valve is perhaps the only developer who up its games’ stakes so seamlessly that they’re imbued with real emotional arcs.
Portal (2007): If a video game is “funny” (and that’s a big “if”), it’s usually funny in one of two ways: through cartoonish non-sequitur (usually executed best in Japanese games) or an underdeveloped, anti-human nihilism that might qualify as satire in the broadest sense (usually, um, executed in Western games). So, put aside the Hot Topic-esque meme culture it birthed and remember just how genuinely witty Portal is throughout the entirety of its short play time. Here, the acidity and darkness derive from an actual character’s worldview, played less for cheap fratboy giggles than the sort of laughter that gets caught in your throat while you contemplate why you’re forming a compelling relationship with an inanimate object. Portal is perhaps the one truly perfect narrative game I’ve played. Every aesthetic detail, every catty line of dialogue, every tricky little brain-bender works in unison to achieve the same thematic and tonal ends. For a game of such potential claustrophobia, its world is so unique and personable that it feels limitless. There are some days where I think I like video games, but there are also some days were I think I might just really like Portal.
Shadow of the Colossus (2005): I’d suffer through a million braindead bossfights against generic zombies and vampires for one more game with the near-mythic resonance of Shadow of the Colossus. Part pro-environmental fable, part sneaky commentary on gamers’ inability to question their amoral actions within a virtual world, Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece is a big, gaping bruise in an industry content to peddle snake oil salves. Grand in scope and minimalist in execution, it throws out the rambling tomes’ worth of lore by which most video games define “depth” and replaces it with wells of loss, false triumphs, and regret. This is the first game I discussed on this blog, and I still wonder if it set the bar too high.
Super Mario 64 (1996): A pop-art masterstroke and an ode to the joy of pure motion. Revisiting Super Mario 64 and finding it still enchants was a huge relief. No rose-tinted nostalgia here; just unhindered creativity, innovation, and level design elevated to a form of architecture. Every level is memorable, and Mario remains one of the most pleasing avatars to control in all of video games. Except for the camera, nothing can touch it in terms of pure game design.
Thanks so much for sticking with me for the past year! Anyone reading this makes writing it all the more worthwhile. Here’s to another year of great gaming experiences.
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