I’m not entirely sure, after another play-through, that I’d still put the original Bioshock on this list, particularly in light of how Bioshock: Infinite mobilizes its gameplay thematically in comparison. Admittedly, Infinite’s ideological equivocation – its assumption that both sides of a conflict are equally culpable for some apparently apolitical notion of cruelty – is far more morally dubious than the original Bioshock’s searing critique of a fallacious and limited notion of “freedom” run amok. But the gameplay of Infinite – and the way in which the gameplay itself thematizes “player agency” with more nuance than the original Bioshock ever did, casts a less luminescent light on the water-logged original for me at this point. While the first Bioshock essentially disfigures its audiences for being led so easily and unthinkingly to a deterministic conclusion, one where personal agency is nothing more than a fallacious ruse, Infinite discovers what the pragmatist William James, himself so fervently critical of American imperialism and nationalism, did during the very time-period Infinite is set: that the existential uncertainty and flux of modernity are neither fully constricting and devouring of agency nor truly liberating to the point of allowing unmediated, atomistic personal expression.
In other words: all play is always on rails, and it’s up to us to figure out how to either expand the rails or to use the rails more creatively. James’ awareness was a self-reflective reminder of the tragic possibility of limitation and uncertainty: the world’s constraints and our awareness of them are themselves constitutive to a playful, experimental selfhood predicated not on escaping or emancipating the self in the heroically American self-fashioning sense but in the ambivalent play with and of options, pathways, and possibilities. In literalizing gameplay rails in its world and thinking of these rails as spaces of possibility rather than pure limitation, Infinite moves past the somewhat self-important conclusion of the original Bioshock and toward a vision of movement that is comparatively liberated, not because it transcends limitations but because it experiments within the tragic awareness that the rails can never truly be eliminated. We are all on rails, in video games and in life, but that does not mean we are beholden to them, nor that we must (or ever could) choose between a binary of “player or personal agency” (which is typically read as “freedom”) and, conversely, “narrative or world design” (read as “structure,” and via an argumentative slippage, “player limitation”).
I don’t cotton to the video game world as unanimously as I once did, but it’s still a medium capable of valid experiences, and I feel incomplete without sharing some of my most meaningful affairs with the genre. The date cut-off of 2003 is slightly arbitrary, but I wasn’t in the game, pardon the pun, before that with any sort of critical capacity, so it would be difficult to seriously explore earlier video games with as much consideration, important though many of them may be.
Updated with full list and honorable mentions.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
The “license” is, more often than not, where video games go to die. Ricocheting around various external (often movie) deadlines and otherwise predisposed to failing to untangle the knots of a multi-media empire, games based on non-game properties typically wince at the idea of having to translate the atmosphere or tone of their catalyst-media into the lexicon of a video game. Not so with Arkham Asylum, a more studious exploration of Batman as a character than any of the dirgey Christopher Nolan films as well as a closed-casket adventure through the hallowed halls of a ticking straight-jacket of a location. Arkham is not sacrosanct or scrubbed-clean in Rocksteady’s game; this location is a from-the-gutters, alley-cat mental space, bent and threshed with a tactile, knuckle-dusting combat system that emphasizes weight and impact over grace. It’s implacable, yet it’s so tightly wound that you feel your skin trying to crawl into your bones.
A free-associative Ferris wheel that dangerously dismisses personal maintenance in favor of the logics of chaos, frenzy, and fracas, Platinum Games’ Bayonetta is an infernal dive into the surreal ecstasy that defines the unchained video game format. Uninhibited by social norms and eschewing plain-clothes questions of “art” in the genre, Bayonetta exhibits patented pangs of arousal at the sheer thought of broadcasting its own lawless, inebriated, gaminess-hemorrhaging insanity. Palpably invested in the possibilities of human bodies in perilous motion, this is the video game as an uncemented, libidinous one night stand. It’s most unbridled love is for itself too – a game so honest about its narcissism can’t but turn ego into an art form. It’s good with its hands, you might say. You’ll have to be pretty talented with your own hands to manage the impulse-and reflex based combat system, grafted from Devil May Cry and unscrewed here until it doubles as a euphemism for … anything you can imagine. It plays real well too.
Drawing a line to Bioshock from its spiritual predecessor System Shock 2 is like a tumor metastasizing. It was already malignant in 2000, when Ken Levine’s first FPS reconfigured the genre toward exploration and intimidation rather than simply pointing and clicking. But Bioshock catalyzes it into something baroquely insidious and diabolically refuses to pacify the first person shooter with aimless corridors of trivializing bullets. Instead, Bioshock infests the genre with muck-racking political critique sans any of the compromised, wishy-washy equivocation of follow-up Bioshock Infinite. Plus, as an interactive work of found fiction, it rewrites the texture of the shooter, defying the conventions of linearity and instead delving into cavernous notions of “location” as the raison d’ etre of the genre and its immersive capabilities.
In this case, the gaudy, Art Deco, Randian opulence not galvanized but curdled by its own grotesque, swamp-tarnished implosion is the backdrop for a startlingly expressionistic excoriation of the self-propagating and self-immolating fires of laissez faire capitalism. Even if the part about the game critiquing the player’s “agency” and “volition” cleanly resolves itself in a “twist” – the tool of lazy artists – the game still deserves credit for imagining the first person shooter as both existential black hole and fire-and-brimstone inquisition. The fallibility of reason, and the failure of the intellectual mind to pacify or control its own consequences, is underlined with the bloody red strokes of experiential havoc and swept away in the torrential downpour of individualist ghouls mutated through capital rather than enlightened by it.
An inflection point in the history of modern video gaming, Jonathan Blow’s Braid, the product of a clearly untamed and restless mind, is both a state-of-the-union address about the history of gaming mechanics and the first ripple of a cascading sea-change in the contested space between so-called “low culture” and “high art”. Buttressed by a tapestry of reflective, earthen tones that masquerade as ornamentation, the game’s even-keeled aesthetics are in reality deeply entwined with the game’s knack for turning placidity into diabolical fits of mental reorganization. The mental categories compartmentalizing time and space in the audiences’ minds – themselves limited by centuries of rationalist thought – are unknoted by one of the few games that genuinely asks you to reconsider your notion of perceptual experience. With an ending that implicitly critiques the latent chauvinism and masculine possessiveness embedded in most goal-oriented entertainment, Braid also doubles as a fireside chat about the gender dynamics in the medium as well as a study in mental structure that defies simple narrative or content and tackles more unmanageable (and thus more worthwhile) questions of video game mechanics and form. In other words, it’s all about the gameplay.
Fallout 3/ Fallout: New Vegas
A monstrous hybrid of Lynchian askew-Americana and emergent, divergent world-building, this pair of modern classics are paragons for possibility in the genre. Technical problems abound, but the expansive, crestfallen radiance of the imagery and the wry, comic subterfuge of the writing assuage any doubts. While appreciating these games is apposite to glossing over a broken ruleset more often than not, there’s something to be said for these games getting ahead of their masters, rolling off into the stratosphere with their own bandages and breakages, barely holding themselves together in the process. It’s a sublime study in horizontal design, where the vertical slice of composed experience is meaningless next to the endless possibility of drifting off into the surrounding spaces. There’s always one more cave to explore.
Far Cry 2
Treating the scripture of the original Far Cry not as a sacrosanct holy text but a challenge and a broad palette to utilize, catalyze, and reenvision, Far Cry 2 not only expands on the breathless open-world FPS type set-up by its progenitor but functions as a slantwise deconstruction of the FPS genre altogether. Starkly opposing the rigorously curated world of, say, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (reigning over the video game landscape in 2008, when Far Cry 2 was released), Ubisoft Montreal’s game deflates the ego of the genre by busting it, breaking it, and ripping its skin away until you can see the bone. Grafting its best features from rogue-likes and survival games, this is an animalistic, oppressive game where the working parts do not coalesce or conspire toward a specific point; instead, they takes cues from centrifugality and entropy, introducing chaos and tumult even at the expense of conventional notions of “fun” and “entertainment”. Rather than being wound-up, it’s gaming unleashed. Far Cry 2 isn’t playing around. It might even hate you.
Gone Home renegotiates the spirit of “space” in the video game medium, upending conventions about narrative by intimately imagining linear time through the prism of local place. The game’s conventional narrative – about your sister’s kindling romance over a year of life when you were off backpacking Europe – is fine. Yet Gone Home is a fantastic game not because of its content, but due to its form. The true “story” of the game is our perceptual story as an audience, with the game redefining the timid “audio diary” couch the medium has splayed itself out on in recent years by injecting the diaries into otherwise visual canvasses for interrogating this mysterious year in your family’s life. You listen a little, but by and large the best chunks of narrative land are implied and excavated for in hidden visual cues (the bottles of alcohol, the teasing concert tickets, and the letters-from-pop that make up the side stories are as harrowing as the central narrative, and you might miss them entirely). It’s a study in empathy through game mechanics, rather than “narrative”, and a witty turn of the horror genre screw that asks you to invade a haunted mansion where the ghosts are questions of memory and our own past selves. You could say that Gone Home is a story about love, but it’s really about the more amorous question of how we know each other at all.
In a more serpentine way, Half-Life 2 is no less revolutionary than Valve’s earlier masterclass in expanding the horizon of the genre by plummeting it into a narrative abyss. It lacks the intricate poetry of Halo’s puzzle of movement and combat, but Valve shreds the FPS fabric by shifting away from shooting purity and toward reimagining weapons as merely one organ (but not a vestigial one) within an amorphous, fluid amalgam of interactive fiction. In its slowly encroaching doom-laden narrative, which resists the info dump for the long haul, it also evinces new possibilities for the turgid, timid dystopic fiction genre by avoiding the obvious capital-P politics for a more experiential tale of a single human on the run.
Thatgamecompany’s iridescent adventure into voluminous sand physicality and careening, cascading emotion kindled in nearly fluorescent color particles is both a natural evolution of their free-floating emotional constructs Flow and Flower and an exploratory fantasia all its own. While most games strive for a simulacrum of feeling and ersatz engorgement with experience, Journey is a more incandescent affair in impromptu community and bonding divined not through dialogue or “team” mechanics but through the heartening thrill of sharing an adventure with another whose heart palpates not with how much they know about you but with how withheld they are from you. Even on your own though, Journey is a profoundly intimate exercise in self-discovery where vast, empty space sparkles with the thrill of loneliness and placid lingering – most video games live or die based on the goal-obsessed, volition-oriented in-the-moment thrill of just one more quest. The next arrival point is all that matters, and everything up to that point is just a delaying tactic. Journey aims, and achieves, a more nebulous, cryptic awareness of the fleeting nature of experience and the improbability of the destination. Until, of course, it teaches us, not with a moral but with the glowing perceptions and sensations before us we’ll gloss over if we limit our senses to the destination in front of us, that the experience is the moment, the present; life is lived in the lingering.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is a retexturing of Naughty Dog’s perilously kinetic Uncharted model for the less conventionally exalted, more bruised and battered lexicon of emotional disarray. Rather than breaking your heart, The Last of Us is already heartbroken, exploring malaise and ennui that horizontally permeate through the air, structuring the architecture of life, rather than baroque emotional moments that climax and quickly dissipate into “fun”. Unlike, say, Telltale’s The Walking Dead (to name another infinitely audience-enrapturing game from recent years), The Last of Us doesn’t sabotage its narrative content with trivial gameplay. The baleful play is rooted not so much in learning enemy patterns and scavenging resources (as in most stealth games) as in the creeping tingle of awareness that you have to let go and accept that the world isn’t ready to allow for your precious course of action. It’s a touch overrated (its mechanics aren’t so much revolutionary as impeccably tuned along more conventional lines). But the reticent script – with character truths parceled out not through dialogue but physicality, motion, and facial cues – crystallizes Naughty Dog’s position lighting the way for AAA game development.
Playdead’s debut game channels the frigid fjords of their Scandinavian homeland into a malicious, dejected artifact of dissipated menace. The austere, malevolent black invasively inlaid into the prevailingly ambiguous grays intimate a stolen, undisclosed side-scrolling world like a nasty, curdled perversion of the classic Mario Bros. template. A story (a state-of-mind more like it) about perseverance is suggested, but the overlaying predisposition of the tale is to descend into the muck of chilling mood rather than to complicate the affair with narrative; the images and the incandescent, fractured score speak for themselves. The fires of minimalism exhibit a more commanding chokehold on the player than any budget-increase could have dreamt up. Limbo is a game excised of distraction; it’s so pure that it’s indomitable. Plus it’s a hell of a puzzle game too.
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath
Like a number of games on this list’s back-half, Stranger’s Wrath was release in 2005-2006 (when the era of the mid-tier B game brought us more wonderfully weird entries in the medium that are reserved from downloadable status now) and it was a death-blow to its designer (Oddworld Inhabitants) even as it achieved critical darling status. But if Inhabitants had to taste the ice grip of death so that Stranger’s Wrath could live … well, it’s best not to assume the latter was predicated on the former. But, either way, Stranger’s Wrath stands as one of the most inventive twists on the first person shoot genre to ever grace the medium, redistricting its clout away from weapon-fetishization and toward exploration and an inverted combat design where bugs and other cheerily rambunctious creatures serve as death-dealers rather than bullets. With an inlaid Western identity, the ammo also doubles as an amusing, winking parody of the Western genre’s emphasis on scrounging resources from the land rather than accepting the mechanization of modernity (the narrative makes headway into a similar critique near the end). It also gamely interweaves styles (between third-person adventure and first-person shooting) and invests in a pre-Rango anthropomorphized Western aesthetic that still somehow carves out channels for revitalizing itself over the course of its 15-hour quest.
This water-color daydream of a game also served as the period on the too-short sentence of Clover Studios (who would break up immediately after this game’s release to form Platinum Games, creators of Bayonetta, which feels a little like Okami’s evil twin). Its East-meets-West aesthetic introduces the harried yet restful style of Japanese art into the usually hurried cartoon world of the video game, kindling the medium into a more wandering, wondering sort of high that absconds with the exclusively functional nature of art in most games. It bequeaths us with a more breathing, flowing look that gracefully sways between stagnancy and subtle flickers of motion that keep you on your toes even during the nominal respites from hectic combat. About the gameplay: not content to be mounted on your wall, the game moves with a fury and restive balance when you’re engaged in combat that eschews violence for a more painterly (literally) emphasis on movement gesture. Killing is exchanged for a more presentational style of nearly abstract art and kinesthetic motion.
Rather than unifying the cognitive dissonance in the morality and the mechanics of game design, papering over the ethical worth of your actions, Papers, Please lays the disarray bare. Relying on rote memorization and exclusively inelegant mechanics, this intimate dissection of bureaucracy purposely scrapes away the layers of inlaid ornamentation appended to most games, leaving only the bare minimum of people trying to cross a border and yourself to deny them access. The leftover sense is a prevailing purposelessness and a striking sense of the rigidity of not only bureaucracy but video game systems (if you squint, the game is not unlike a frigid, haunting satire of the “clicker” genre that has runaway with video gaming in recent years). Without ever reducing itself to a parade of Jekyll and Hyde choices, Papers, Please surreptitiously curdles the whole idea of “listening” to the game into something doleful and disturbed, testing your resolve to follow-through with the designer’s will. The antiquated, minimalist art style, devoid of personification or individualization, only buttresses the choking sense of anonymity and disquiet found within the game’s head-shaking, uncouth inquisition of the banality of evil.
The devious, even treacherous world of the original Portal was a revelation on its own on the back of its improbably stellar gameplay mechanics and its second-to-Braid rejiggering of video game world geometry along non-representational lines of space and time. All Valve, the game’s developer, really needed to do was rinse and repeat, but they transformed that mechanical façade into a downright mischievous exploration of character as well. The long dead Cave Johnson, the game’s second major new character, is defined not via corporeal presence but as a function of time and location altered to reflect his ever-malleable mindset, with the game challenging the notion that characters must exist in the environment when their mental architecture is the environment. The slippery nature of the other characters – villainous, omnipresent GLaDOS and impetuous, monomaniacal Wheatley – also provide the canvas upon which Valve can layer the finest, most wry writing to ever upend a video game story.
Tim Schafer’s fabled Psychonauts was the first nail in Double Fine’s sarcophagus (the underrated, if troubled, Brutal Legend, their follow-up AAA game, was the second). Thankfully, Double Fine has adapted to smaller-scale, independent watering hole – after their reprobate status post-Legend branded them heretics in the AAA world – like a phoenix arising from the ashes of the public’s misunderstanding. Which isn’t a surprise – Psychonauts is such a migratory game, slipping between styles and moods on a moment’s notice, that Double Fine’s imaginative new vision for itself after being unceremoniously dumped by the public is just what this adaptable company does best. That, and one of the only spins on the platformer genre to arrive since the turn of the century, twisting and bending the “jump” rule-set of the genre by introducing elements of thorny psychoanalysis-parody, kaleidoscopic style, and dream-geometry that unlatches the platformer genre from the physical laws tying it down. Bewilderment was their albatross commercially, but I for one am happy to be befuddled by Double Fine any day of the week.
Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal
A monolith of game design from what increasingly feels like a simpler time when the latent absurdity of the medium could flourish and flower without impediment, Insomniac Games’ cosmically-minded Up Your Arsenal is nothing less than their Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s iterative, without a doubt; there’s precious little fundamentally different about Up Your Arsenal compared to its two progenitors. But the lifeline is in the particulars, like the phosphorescent pop-art of the color design, the squash-and-stretch physicality of the characters, and the hurtling imagination of the weapons that preface instability and anarchy over violence. Not the most transgressive game, but among the most delightful.
Red Dead Redemption
I can’t defend the ending of this game highly enough. A three-act moral panic deals out redemption thrice to three different figures: the enemy, the protagonist, and finally, the player. The final post-mortem quest in Red Dead Redemption is a quiet, withering nightmare and an implicit put-down of everything you’ve achieved up to that point, as well as all of the post-Enlightenment conceptions of agency and volition that undergird Western fiction. After spending two dozen hours fighting for a chance for your son, your actions strangle him into a choice that dethrones your entire path and implicitly tackles the Wild West as a black cloud prefiguring an empty void in which morality has no quantifiable role. Even when the white-hot title card invades the screen in the game’s closing flicker, the game proves unwinnable.
That said, Red Dead’s most affecting attributes aren’t knotted to narrative – the proclivity of other mediums – but to its gameplay, a thoroughgoing dive into the vistas of possibility and emptiness that constructed the daily dialectic of life in the Old West. Even better, by playing on the decades of mythic reinterpretation of Western fiction, the game surreptitiously treats itself as an exploration of the Western in the American imagination. By prefacing main character John Marston as a killer, as well, the game’s violent onslaught of player-centered action doubles as an interrogation of Marston’s stated desire to actually escape his violent lifestyle, neatly sidestepping the typical Rockstar Games dissonance between their anti-violence narratives and their devoutly pro-violence gameplay. For bonus points, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare is a model for how downloadable add-ons pay homage to their forebears while also liquefying them to be remade as something anew, in this most bodacious Halloween Special of the video game form.
Resident Evil 4
Shinji Mikami’s deliriously effective Resident Evil 4 feels like the dream-self that taunted the original Resident Evil nearly a decade before hand. It retains everything that encompassed the essence of the franchise while also buttressing it with a legion of quality-of-life upgrades that tightened the screws on the genre so that it could become the vision of itself that had been lingering in its subterranean mind since the franchise’s inception. Kindling the turgid movement and nearly unrecognizable mechanics of the original into their best selves, RE 4 retains the idiosyncrasies of the style without worshipping at their altar sans innovation. The emphasis on physicality over grace is still present, and the game still takes as its focal point the move-or-shoot existential crisis that defies conventions of freedom and multitasking in the genre. The flaring suspense is a byproduct not of a continual rollercoaster of escape and peril, but of a carefully calibrated scalpel of crowd management, ammo conservation, and mobility tradeoffs.
RE 4 frees you by cementing you in place, defying your desire to exert maximal agency and volition onto your enemies and daring to emphasize your weakness and frailty. It’s not as masterfully deconstructive as early anti-combat classics like Silent Hill 2, a game that accentuates your passivity rather than activity and ensnares you in a prison of traumatic fog, but it’s a white-hot ride nonetheless. As a plus, it relishes the B-spirit of the video game medium, marinating horror clichés in a brew of endearment and consummate absurdity, marrying its hair-raising, discomfiting mechanics to a diabolical whimsy and a positive-minded pride in its own trivial, goofy nature.
Shadow of the Colossus
A pastiche, and implicit critique, of the video game ur-text The Legend of Zelda, Team Ico’s follow-up to their under-the-radar hit bearing their namesake was, as of its release in 2005, perhaps the most substantial reorientation of the native-tongue of its medium in a decade. Another decade on, precious few games have even attempted to surpass this bewildering cocktail of minimalist narrative mechanics, improbably expressionistic visuals, and brazenly restrictive combat that eschews hundreds of trivializing encounters for a dozen or so titanic ones.
Beneath the throat-grabbing combat – preceding the likes of Dark Souls in reorienting the player’s mind to understand the game’s rules rather than granting the player the benefit to trounce enemies on the first try – lies a subterranean exegesis on the assumptions we as players make about the actions creators guide us toward. Did you kill the colossi, perhaps nature’s last breath and the final totems of the beauty of the unknown and the extra-human in the world? Of course you did. Why? Because you were told to, and the game knows you won’t ask for another reason; you’ll do it because killing is what games ask of you. There’s no moral mapping in Shadow of the Colossus – no good, no evil, no attempts to prefigure any characters or even define them at all. Everything arrives exclusively through gameplay, most of all the ghostly specter of your own frailty, as well as the arbitrary nature of your own actions in the game medium. That forlorn landscape you thought you laid conquest to in order to find your targets starts to seem less like a valiant escapade and more like a barren trudge into your own loneliness.
Skyrim (The Elder Scrolls V)
Where to begin with Bethesda’s endearingly ruined 2011 misfit of a game? A follow-up to Fallout 3, Skyrim retains its predecessor’s fractured, often broken edges and wears them like badges of honor rather than cries for help. The failures of the game – its bruised rough-edges, its hiccups – become windows into the foibles of game design, and the value of games that don’t limit themselves to achieving that which they can fully master. Skyrim is a teetering skyscraper not only willing to overlook the shaky foundation upon which it is built, but downright infatuated with its habit of testing the might of the girders that serve as its bedrock. It’s a game catalyzed by its own failures, allowing players unprecedented freedom to divine their own truths and experiences divorced from the designer’s intent. While most games funnel you to neatly curated experiences, Skyrim throws its hands up with an awareness of its own inability to match the minds of the players themselves.
Super Mario Galaxy
Nintendo, long a third wheel in video game development, sits on gold mines time and time again in the form of an irrepressible back catalogue that they routinely envision as a money-making venture rather than a canvas to challenge themselves artistically. Zelda has long been a coping mechanism for their failures, a sort of bandage they replace every five or so years to hide how little they’ve advanced over time. Occasionally, however, they get a spring in their step and an idea in their head, as with Super Mario Galaxy, a vertiginously kaleidoscopic, disorienting maelstrom of game design and a descent into the whirling dervish of effervescence games once upon a time meant to people, before the duel grottos of violence and self-imposed “take me seriously” adolescence engulfed the medium. Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t reconfigure the moral universe of video games, but it threshes the design pieces, the mechanics, the level design, the way we play, and stitches them back together in downright delirious new ways. It’s one of the few games that, despite knowing the benefit of impeccable polish and perfection, still feels like an inchoate new growth for the medium alive with possibility, intimately acclimatized to gaming’s past as a way to fracture the medium’s mirror and lay the shards out into the future.
Primary Honorable Mention (because the game isn’t finished yet):
Kentucky Route Zero
The ever-encroaching, inexorable mystique always vulture-circling around Cardboard Computer’s package-delivery-simulator-cum-existential-nightmare Kentucky Route Zero is the rare example of an episodic structure actually redefining the possibilities of the video game form. Occupying the liminal space between point-and-click and sit-and-wait, Route Zero carves out a new mental space for its audience that only dives deeper in the mind during the in-the-middle spaces between its episodic releases. It’s one of the few examples of video games relying on the player’s mind less as Pavlovian utility (“would you kindly…?”) and more as another canvass upon which the meanings percolate and grow. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead, the episodic nature serves not only to increase suspense, but to permeate the questions the game asks into deeper tombs of thought.
But if the down-time in between episodes is essential, the individual parcels of gaming land also speak for themselves in any release schedule, as does the game’s unfathomably unique style. The nonchalant, minimalist look and sound of this adventure, infused with the spirit of Art Deco, intimates a murky swamp of American imagination that is as indebted to Twin Peaks as folk art or Flannery O’ Connor. It’s gorgeous, but in a suggestive, subterranean way, where the truths are tentative and always in the making rather than dished out dogmatically as exclamations of pure knowledge. Kentucky Route Zero is a quietly breathtaking exploration of the weathered, crestfallen American empty, an ode to out-of-the-way roads as dialectical mindscapes of possibility and limitation.
It’s also a wonderfully unstable text, prone to reinterpretation and wide gulfs of ambivalence as it explores everything from economic collapse to ghosts and vestiges of the past in all forms to the way localities of the mind – how we contextualize the landscape around us within wider imaginative structures – inform our perceptions of physical space and vice-versa. This is back-road gaming, excavating new, uncharted pathways in the seemingly-abandoned adventure genre that has been redeveloped in recent years without actually being recontextualized or re-sensed. As opposed to simply honoring the lineage of adventure gaming, Kentucky Route Zero ruminates, phantom-like, on all the various American lineages it is indebted to; jut notice the stream-of-consciousness, split-personality conversations where you choose not only how to respond to prompts but who does the responding, a child of the Faulknerian Southern Gothic … “tradition” I almost wrote, but there’s nothing traditional about it, or how Kentucky Route Zero enlivens it.
There’s also a crucial sense of restraint, composure, and molasses-thick viscosity to this backwoods tub of gaming moonshine. It never evaporates into post-modern relativism and nothingness. It floats on into the air, but it’s also finding new ways to tether itself to the ground we walk on. This game doesn’t jerry-rig itself against audience-understanding by coating itself in a hubristic haze of impermeable imagery and self-insulating weirdness. It isn’t all nonsense. The game also introduces elements of the quotidian that other games cower from by way of ignoring, like how characters go up to the fifth floor of a building, find nothing, only to be told when they return to the person who first told them to go to the fifth floor that in fact the person they were seeking is now on the first floor. This isn’t length-extending busywork that distracts from the eventual goal of talking to this proverbial first-by-way-of-fifth floor person; the fact that the pseudo-quest-giver just got it wrong for a minute is the point. In this way, Kentucky Route Zero invites and meditates on the physical world around it like the shadow of normality that observes everything without itself being noticed behind us. It just needs a few hours of our time to be heard. Mining without fully uncovering (and thus without purifying the mystery of) the more subcutaneous realms of Americana, this is not a thin veneer of strangeness but a genuine amble into fundamental instability, a game that reorganizes itself almost by the minute.
Other Honorable Mentions:
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay/The Darkness
A one-two punch of shooters from a Swedish company palpably unmitigated by Western game design tropes, this two-fisted act of genre reinvention introduces a tactile physicality to the action and injects a doom-laden atmosphere to the aesthetics that curdle the adolescent power fantasies of the genre into duskier, more autumnal realms of melancholia.
A just-one-more-turn time-waster turned time-escaper that intravenously introduces the more playful aesthetic and streamlined mechanics of Civilization Revolution to the PC Civ formula while also maintaining the life-sucking vampirism the series had been known for.
Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening
A fluorescent, cocaine-addicted whirling dervish of a punk-afflicted, outré exercise in style-as-substance. A drunken bender of a game.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
A porous mediator between video game and mental disarray, Eternal Darkness hasn’t aged with grace, but its revolutionary amalgam of post-structural self-awareness and torn-and-frayed sound and visual design remains important years later.
Surrealism again in this plucked-from-heaven slantwise riff on game design and edutainment that inverts everything you know about the medium.
Soviet iconography, mid-century spy fiction, and psychotropic button-pushing play bumper cars in this insouciant, not-wrapped-too-tight modern classic that feels like it was born full-cloth out of thin air.
Less style-over-substance than style-as-substance, Suda51’s masterstroke of plastic, hypermalleable punk-surrealism bends the shooter genre about as far as it can go without suffering from whiplash.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Gaming’s most venerable franchise opens up its heart in one of its more legitimately exploratory entries, galvanized in a cel-shaded aesthetic that recalls your inner-child’s memories about what early 3D gaming looked like.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots/Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Two unscrupulous classics of nonsense-before-logic, one devoutly ludicrous and one more insidiously so, and both buttressed by an auteur’s sensibilities of giddy game-as-high. Hideo Kojima’s inveterate joie de vivre at being given “how much money?” to make a game is palpable in every second of both releases. Better still, both feel like reactions to their predecessors, with Snake Eater revitalizing the incandescent, drunken improvisation of Sons of Liberty with a more curtailed, deviously slithering exercise in careful stealth and Guns of the Patriots, in turn, over-stoking the series’ fire until it spins out of control into baroque slapstick.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
A reminder that the greatest benefit of gaming’s propensity for vague, non-specific characterization is the endless malleability of even the medium’s most sacrosanct characters. In this case, the spunky plumber in the red overalls is a manipulable hero in a light send-up of role playing mechanics packaged in a gorgeous, eminently personality-filled expression of Nintendo’s inimitable understanding of gaming fundamentals.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
A thrill-ride, yes, but also an exercise in momentum and kinesthetic movement creating character empathy, placing us in protagonist Nathan Drake’s heart and mind. It’s also a beautifully interactive invigoration of the turgid action movie format; simple and hardly as sublime as it once was, but at the time, it felt a little bit like magic.
A structurally audacious, deceptively complicated analysis of the prevalence of combat in gaming that introduces notions of peaceful play so unheralded in the medium that it feels like a from-the-gut disembowelment of gaming altogether. A monstrous hybrid of strict adherence to classic design and a futurist, anarchic desire to mess up the place.