Andrew’s Top 10 Games of All Time
When pondering the ten greatest video games I have ever experienced, I chose to merge the ideas of subjective and objective reasoning in an effort to create the most legitimate ranked list I could conjure. You see, I’m one of those people that will argue into the ground the idea that there is a huge difference between determining “favorites” and determining the “best” works of a certain medium; and when constructing ranked lists such as this one here, I normally take the time to seriously consider the strengths and flaws of one work as opposed top those of another. Here, in efforts to also allow my own personal taste to flow into the mix, I present the Top 10 Games which, when looking back on them, have had a vast influence over the way I both critique games and think about them. This isn’t necessarily a definitive ranking of the “10 Greatest Games of All Time;” not only would that take weeks, even months to attempt, it would also require an immense catalog of gaming experience, one which my own would seem modest in comparison to. So without further ado, I present my personal list of the 10 games that forever changed the way I look at the medium.
10. Grand Theft Auto IV
Featuring one of the most narratively-affecting open world environments ever designed in a game, a protagonist so complex in characterization he puts most dramatic fictional personas to shame, and a staggeringly-impressive focus on storytelling despite the freedoms opportune to the player, Grand Theft Auto IV instantly astonished me with its cinematic introduction and cautious tutorial procedural. From there it only further reshaped the way I look at grand open-world games, cementing in my mind the blueprint for plotting any character arc throughout an impenetrable cityscape of violence and greed. Liberty City feels unlike any other sandbox setting, complete with thematically-resonant pedestrian encounters, an array of locales and sights to behold, and a massive space to allow the dark roots of Niko Bellic’s war-addled form to let unleash. Ultimately an epic discussion regarding the duplicitous essence of seeking freedom through foreign discovery — as well as the inability to shape one’s future while attempting to escape the past — where GTA IV succeeds the most is in its structuring the player in a world where he feels entirely out of place; yet as they grow more and more accustomed to the corruption which fuels the city, both Niko and the player slowly realise their true lack of liberty in this brutally-charged world. Every city has its boundaries, and each dollar Niko earns leads him closer and closer to downfall, till the bitter end where an inescapable revenge plot leaves our ‘hero’ unsatisfied and alone, tormented by the simple truth which defines every New World expedition: People can’t change, nor can they forget.
I think it’s safe to say that nothing like BioShock ever really existed before its 2007 release. Sure the Half-Life games delivered a steady, cutscene-less approach to player immersion and the System Shock franchise designed a frantic world for the player to get lost and terrified within; but BioShock was the first game that permitted the feeling of intense power over situation: with each physiological upgrade you made to your body, every disfigured Rapture citizen you blasted away with a bolt of electricity, with every new disturbed, desolate location you discovered, you gradually inched your way closer and closer to the heart of the lost city’s tragedy. By the end of the game, your bodily enhancements, your moral decisions affected by greed, all culminate to unleash vengeance and promise retribution, only to lead to the thematic conclusion regarding the insistence of human integrity and achievement: Power comes at a cost far greater than the dependency of single individuals on their governmental tyrants. You arrive at the conclusion a divine being opposingly defined by the authority of another, putting into question the significance of moral-enlightenment at all as well as the very definition of what it means to be a Man.
8. Super Mario World
Simply the greatest 2D-platformer I have ever played, Super Mario World continues to astonish these twenty-five years onward with its impeccable world-building, limitless imagination, and visceral ambition. Retaining the constancy of the original Super Mario Bros.’s level design, each world remains a distinguished and unbelievably-inventive plethora of quick-thinking, instinctual reactions to varied enemies and puzzling platforming. The screen exhibits a profusion of color and diversity at any given moment, and yet the game continues to introduce new enemy types, new gameplay mechanics, new powerups, etc. all throughout its 96 levels (each just as engaging as the last) without ever feeling superfluous or gratuitous. Its lasting charm lies in its incongruity, or rather its lack of explanation for any of its design features. The basic “plot” (Mario is a plumber set in a fantasy land and sent off to save a princess from some part-turtle, part-dragon monster) defies explanation, for the lunacy is where the design elements feel most applicable. By reveling in the ridiculousness of the setting and circumstance, Super Mario World dissolves any necessity for clear explanations and instead offers exciting gameplay matched with ingenious level design which not only begs the player to always think fast, but conditions them to keep moving forward without really understanding as to why. Call it a psychological evaluation, I just call it fun.
A simple premise which lasts numerous lifetimes: destroy the otherworldly invaders till you reach the mothership and eliminate the threat once and for all. But every great arcade classic has more to it than the basic plot promises; and with Galaga, each playthrough permits a different approach to tackling the enemy forces deadset against you, the lone humanoid ship. Once you learn the fundamentals of the double-shot cannon, or the attack patterns of the alien ships, or the most effective method to earn extra points in the bonus rounds, you only grow into a more focused player, a more inclined hero or heroine; and isn’t that what defines basic video game orchestration? Learning new methods as to promote further achievement and increased reflexes/understanding/focus; ultimately, to become a better player, and thus become a better you? Galaga presents this representative concept in the most tried and true method of broadcast: betterment through repetition. It also captures the most timeless organization of gameplay tropes and basic gaming fundamentals, delivering a seamless, immortal classic which disregards age and beauty through its existence as the perfected blueprint for modern arcade game design. What Galaga lacks in complexity, it will forever make up for in sheer tenacity.
Minecraft took over my life. Hell, whose life has it not yet taken over? When I first moved out to Chicago, all summer long I would find myself up at the wee hours of the night well on into the morning obsessively adding on to my underwater fortress or my hillside mansion, battling creepers and spiders, digging deep caverns to search for the rarest of minerals and treasures. As it grew into an expansive experience after its years-long beta ended and the game itself was finally released, what remained — despite the gameplay improvements, RPG-style additions, and complimentary incorporation of numerous enemy types — was a vestibule of creation, an unfathomable landscape designed both randomly and focusedly to deliver essentially a workbench for whatever the player’s mind could conjure up in imagination. By supplying the tools and settings, Mojang begged consumers to not only survive, but instead to live, pushing for players to bring to life their greatest possibilities of invention within the contexts of an isolated world free from any distractions besides those the player themselves forged. With its monumental popularity, Minecraft fittingly serves as a brilliant parallel to our real world at the dawn of time well on through to the modern period. Most interestingly is how the game delves into universal themes regarding society and Humankind’s pursuit of technological advancement as fashioned through constant discovery without even once sharing a line of dialogue or even the barest thread of a narrative. Imagine Moby Dick as silently described by environment and perusal of technique rather than dramatic playwriting and introspective allusions. And thus imagine the themes of Moby Dick as described in an entirely separate medium, one of which can only rely on individual interaction to sufficiently argue the core principles of human expedition. With that, you have one of the most affecting game experiences ever crafted, one that can set the player off on an exciting adventure fueled by creativity, insight, fascination, all without ever leaving home.
5. Resident Evil 4
A brilliant amalgam of western and eastern cultural influences, this horror sequel — less focused on the scares and far more on commendability — rather than ditch the series’s original gameplay formula altogether, systematically reworks its fundamental mechanics to route the player through an inconceivable array of instantly memorable sequences and encounters. Resident Evil 4 is effectively a comedy disguised as a survival horror game, utilizing the series’s infamous approach to dialogue, story, and character-writing in a manner which (surprisingly) appropriately juxtaposes with the twisted creatures and settings which the player comes up against throughout. And while its successful capture of conflicting tone alone remains a worthy testament to the title’s longevity, where RE4 mostly deserves praise is its consistent approach to level design. Every sequence is carefully coordinated to allow the player absolute freedom in determining their course of action; a myriad of hidden items and unrecognized skillsets give more than enough reason to constantly revisit the game; the sly approach to level disposition allows for each moment to stand as one memorable setting and disallow mundanity whatsoever, whether it’s the player’s first time playing through or their twentieth. Playing off the fears of anxiety, stress, the macabre, and even the OCD mania of item management, Resident Evil 4 accomplishes what so few other horror titles have before and after it: effectively delivering elements of fear that appropriately dig deep into the player’s heart and psyche to create an experience both disturbing and accessible, both unsettling and hilarious, both bleak and indelible.
4. Dark Souls
Exploration is too often encouraged in games for the most monotonous of reasons, misguiding players to actively search for unnecessary upgrades or hidden secrets which fail to illuminate upon anything even remotely interesting. The problem arises because players want more out of a game than just a quick, couple-of-hours experience and developers rarely have an understanding of how to satisfy that longing. So whereas most developers feel it a necessity to offer players hidden items to scavenge and collect, FromSoftware instead casually present areas to explore which give a greater sense of the lore of the game’s universe and add to the legitimacy of the environment surrounding them. To call Dark Souls a “game’s game” would not be overestimating its continuous attention to detail nor its intentional lack of hand-holding. Every encounter with an enemy presents a singular challenge to overcome, one that demands patience from the player and the ability to not only learn from mistakes but to capitalize on certain areas of discomfort effectively. Dark Souls — to employ an exaggerated expression — blew my mind when I first stepped into its living, breathing, dying world of Lordran, as it subtly introduced its narrative through the cautiously-fulfilled tutorial segments. Never before had I played a game which both actively urged me forward and constantly challenged my persistence, nor in such an arduous manner, one which not only rewards the patience of dedication but also once again brings value to exploration. My greatest achievements were always finding a complicated shortcut back to a previous area, for it not only seamlessly connected the widespread kingdom together, but also instigated further exploration and continuance of my journey. Dark Souls assigns simple tasks to the player — ring the two bells, kill the four bosses — but the enriching depth which underlines the basic plot-points is what allows the game to succeed as a towering achievement in narrative storytelling. Little explanations are given aside from ambiguous item descriptions and dialogue from mysterious and often untrustworthy NPCs, allowing for intense discussions to be made regarding the true lore surrounding Lordran and the player’s quest, or perhaps not. Because that’s what I find so fascinating about the game altogether; aside from the complex battle system, the terrifying boss encounters which test determination and understanding, and even the manner in which the game makes you feel as though you simply aren’t important, that the world cannot be saved — Dark Souls asks you whether you want to know more and then allows you to pursue your interests accordingly.
I often find it hard to find the appropriate words to describe just how I feel about P.T. To call it the most important game of the current generation is just hitting the tip of the iceberg when discussing its relative overall importance to the video game medium. Essentially a social experiment designed and released to bridge the gap between private gaming experiences and community influence, it not only succeeds as a demo for a (tragically cancelled) horror title under development, but also as one of the most innovative horror experiences delivered to the video game medium. Trading spooks for dread, instigating fear through a psychologically-devastated filter where absolutely nothing is as it seems, implementing mind-bending puzzle-based tasks to perform without ever questioning the intelligence of the player; the ‘playable teaser’ trailer for Silent Hills offers more creativity and psychologically-devastating terror than most full length horror titles ever released. And for however simple the game seems — the only gameplay functions involve walking and zooming in the camera — it constantly plays with its limited control scheme in devious methods. Often the solutions to the unsettling brain-teasers require a quick internet search for a walkthrough or a forum dedicated to unlocking its many mysteries. However, instead of taking away from the experience, this only further enhances the demo as a “game of the moment” property, eliciting itself as a matter which requires discussion and communication between personas in an age where we can find answers to anything with the simple click of a ‘search’ button. And while it’s tragic that the final product will likely never see the light of day (in fact, the cancellation of Silent Hills and the disappearance of P.T. from the PlayStation Store is arguably the greatest tragedy to ever affect the video game medium), for the teaser to live on as a fabled legend, as a quick peak into the immersive future of this latest console generation, allows the game to take on an immortal form all its own, one to be talked about for decades to come. To spread the legend of P.T. will certainly act as a devastating reminder of what could have been; but for P.T. to have existed at all and even for so short a moment only further decrees the pending future of the medium as a revolutionary period for gaming. P.T. existed as a momentary spark of unparalleled innovation, one that came to the right place at the right time. A flawless experience from beginning to end, there remains countless uncovered truths and undiscovered revelations currently presiding within the bowels of that ravaged and rotting home we so eagerly — yet so cautiously — explored over and over again. Perhaps that’s why I find it so difficult to put into words how much of an impact P.T. had on me alone as a gamer: its ambiguity simply leaves me speechless, its intricate design remains forever indescribable. The game haunts me to this day, just as the thought of what horrifying discoveries lie enclosed within that swinging refrigerator will forever be immortalized in the molds of uncertainty.
2. Silent Hill 2
It’s only human to set forth to unravel a mystery which holds a deep place in your heart. But what sets apart Men from Monsters lies in the uncovered truths that abound with expedition into the unknown. James Sunderland is not a good person; however, does that necessarily make him a bad person? If anything, James’s voyage into his subconscious — through the complementary decaying environments of Silent Hill — to search for his presumedly-deceased wife proves that he is far more guilty than previously inclined to confess. But by gradually unraveling the mystery which has come to eat away at his very fabric of being, the line between innocence and responsibility is straddled to the point of severing the ties which bind them. An incredible discussion on grief and the overarching power of guilt over the individual, Silent Hill 2 remains an anomaly: a horror game that never once loses sight of the true visceral psychological terrors, which often confound developers and trick gamers into thinking the less-sophisticated, jump-scare-addled titles render unto them truly terrifying experiences. Not so with SH2, a paradigm of effective brain-teasing and morbid pondering. All Silent Hill 2 does is merely confound and tease, dishing out new enigmas whenever another is resolved, constantly insinuating at certain revelations the game itself has conjured from the subconscious depths of its living hellscape, and providing a narrative that retains an air of isolated linearity while also deceptively inviting player decision to affect the outcome of the fiction. A game where every seemingly-minor detail in fact serves as a psychological inquiry proportional to the plot’s underlying themes; characters who sound exasperated at every turn as to illicit alienation from the world and people around them; locations that simultaneously appear both ordinary and sinister, often depending on the manner in which you look at them; a combat system that effectively feels broken and unstable as to define James as an everyman struggling with the inner demons which plague his psyche and also heighten the anxieties of facing these twisted figures head on; Silent Hill 2 is a towering achievement in ambiguity, narrative storytelling, and presentation, one which is unrivaled in sophistication and unmatched in precision. For me, it remains the quintessential rival to every other game I experience: an essentially-flawless tour de force and a breathtaking horror experience start to end. It’s a tale which could only be told through the medium of video game design, which every game should actively aim to imitate.