With another year safely in the books, we're doing what we do best: listing compulsively.
5. The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe)
See, this is why we can’t have nice things. What was the first thing you tried to do when you saw that slow-sloped dirt hill on the west side of Bob-omb Battlefield? What did you do when confronted by the blockaded bridge in GTAIII? You tried to jump them, leap over to see if you could break the rules and breach the other, forbidden side. Probably unsuccessfully, but that doesn’t matter. You saw the game’s No Trespassing sign and you said, “Fuck it, fuck that, fuck everything.”
Davey Wreden knows you did. That’s why he made The Stanley Parable, a cheeky narrative game about our uncanny reflex to zig when instructed to zag. In fact, many games have known this for years, and they’ve played devil’s advocate by wedging trinkets into the fringes, alleys, and crannies of their preordained paths. But no game has ever pinched a player’s agency by the cheeks quite like The Stanley Parable, a fact that gets funnier and funnier with time.
Because while the game presents many opportunities to dart towards a personal sense of freedom, options presenting themselves even before the two signature doors, everything within the game—the routes, the loopholes, the fringes, alleys and crannies—was built that way. It’s all a carefully designed illusion. At the end of every deviancy, the dry and malevolent narrator is there to shoot you down for thinking you could outsmart the mouse trap constructed for you.
It’s a game with a carrot dangling from a stick, daring you to exploit SOMETHING about it, to discover a new gag in which you become the punchline. One of its endings is made to look like a glitch, but it’s a fake-out, and just as much a part of the structure as following the rules. The Stanley Parable is a game about agency, or at least the false sensation it, and frankly every other videogame ever made, gives you.
“At last, choice!” proclaims the narrator in one of the franker, more cynical conclusions. “It barely even mattered what lay behind each door. The mere thought that his decisions would mean something was almost too wonderful to behold.” Nail, meet head. — Zack Kotzer
4. Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer)
Everything about the first two episodes of Kentucky Route Zero is elegant. It draws you into its world completely and seamlessly. At the very beginning, you’re asked to give your dog a name; hardly anything new, right? Joseph says:
“Did I hear a dog? What’s your dog’s name?”
To which you can choose to respond:
“His name’s Homer/ His name’s Blue/ Just some dog: I don’t know his name”
Note the economy with which the writing lets you know that Joseph is blind, but also note how variously you can define the kind of character you want to play. Is he a scholar who has landed himself in a job delivering antiques? A Simpsons fan? A down-to-earth solid kind of guy who gives a dog a monosyllabic name because he doesn’t waste words? Or a borderline sociopath? What kind of man doesn’t give a name to his dog? Or might he simply be wary of strangers, not wanting to reveal too much to Joseph?
All this from your first interaction, and it sets a precedent that the rest of Kentucky Route Zero fulfills. You can unpack and disassemble anything in this world. Some of what you unpack might be relevant to the main thrust of the story. Some may be a dead end, but you’ll enjoy figuring that out. Perspectives shift. You become another character. You hear yourself described by others. There are echoes of Marquez, Bellow, Pynchon, Joyce and Cervantes; it takes the rules of modernist literary experiments and applies them to a game while never feeling like an intellectual exercise.
How about the office building, in which one floor is simply marked “Bears”? You can get out and the floor is, indeed, full of bears. There’s nothing to do there. There are just a load of bears. For all the minimalism of its aesthetic, these moments constantly suggest a world beyond the concerns of your character and his quest. They are like kindling for your imagination. They allow you space for your own act of make-believe. Both episodes were like half-remembered dreams, brief trips into a world I didn’t want to leave. In a way, all that unpacking and disassembling means I don’t have to. — William Drew
3. Papers, Please (Lucas Pope)
How do we wrap our minds around the idea that an average citizen could help facilitate genocide? How do we understand the psychology of a participant in a Soviet show trial? Or an officer in the NKVD? Any student of history is likely to have read about how ordinary people have taken part in the atrocities of a totalitarian regime. But in making its argument interactive, Papers, Please, forces the kind of uncomfortable proximity to brutality that hasn't been possible in the past.
In it, players gradually assume the mindset of someone who, despite possessing only an ounce of power as an immigration officer, is simply trying to survive within an oppressive state. Developer Lucas Pope deftly humanizes the cold, dispassionate face of a fictional Eastern Bloc rule-follower as yet another victim of bureaucratic indifference. As the officer we understand that unjustly imprisoning someone may be the only way to meet an absurd quota and to earn the paycheck that buys medicine for an impoverished family. We learn what a slow and insidious process corruption can be, and just how easily a decent person learns to shut down her or his sense of compassion in the name of duty and survival.
This seems important since an understanding of bureaucracy is essential for anyone trying to figure out not just the great tragedies of the 20th century, but the modern world, too. A game like Papers, Please forces us to inhabit the mindset of a cog in a machine that, because it's fictional, could represent just about any nation at any time. Once we are able to put ourselves into the mindset of the game's border guard it becomes very easy to see how any of us—people who presume themselves to be basically good—can be so subtly manipulated into performing terrible acts. Pope has taken historical theory and turned it into something that feels immediate, vital, and, most importantly, real. He has given anyone with a few hours and an open mind the ability to safely examine the monster hiding just beneath their surface. — Reid McCarter
2. The Last of Us (Naughty Dog)
"A few weeks ago I read what I believe is the most important environmental book ever written," the ecologist George Monbiot wrote six years ago. "It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts, figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most environmental literature." He was talking about Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but he may as well have been talking about The Last of Us. Like McCarthy, Naughty Dog envisions a world far past the point of impact, and features children who've never known a whole world, never heard a new song. In both artworks, a man and a child journey across a desolate, destroyed America, with little hope in their quest.
But in their paintings of this world they make very different choices. The absolute desolation of McCarthy's skies—his "banished sun (circling) the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp"—appear instead bluer than ever before in The Last of Us. The journey across America celebrates our ecology not through its absence but through its overwhelming presence: Boston turned into a jungle, its leaning skyscrapers transformed into waterfalls; the craggy forests and rivers of Wyoming and Colorado; the stultifying sprays of snow at the game's climax, almost burying the protagonists along with everyone else in the drift. Our encounters with wildlife are lovely when fleeting, as when a bird darts out of an old taxicab. But it's the longer interludes with wildlife—Ellie tracking a deer, giraffes in an overgrown parking lot—that feel like portions of a different game, a different world, bursting through, like flowers crawling out of a city sidewalk.
For all the game's violence, what remains most remarkable is the grace with which it encourages us to move through these spaces. Go forage in a corner and the characters mention that's what they're doing; no urging along, no expectant, docile stares. There are no candy bars in toilets here, but rather hard-fought supplements scattered into occasional dusty corners and logically absent from others. Even those moments of high violence are reflections of their physical spaces; played correctly, taking out a room full of bloodthirsty half-humans plays out like just a different manner of exploring, like the same sentence read with different punctuation.
Which isn't to gloss over the overwhelming gore of this game, the mean, hateful glares in its characters' eyes, the skulls broken and broken and broken. Indeed, this assembly of monsters is the entire point. The grinning gangs and the brutally deformed are as much human and as much a part of the "us" in the title as Joel and Ellie are. That Nathan Drake was a mass-murderer never made a lick of sense; that Joel and Ellie are is the cold logic around which every item in this game is constructed. Here, at last, is a cosmos in which the barking mad populace is justified, in which their decimation is both cause and effect. Of course the earth is subsuming these maniacs, its spores gradually strangling them out. In the black screen that is the game’s final moment we’re asked if we might concede to let it do so; that we can’t quite decide is the game’s final triumph. — Clayton Purdom
1. Gone Home (The Fullbright Company)
In 2009, writers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn embarked on a simple experiment. Their hypothesis? "Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively." They called the process Significant Objects.
So to test, they purchased a collection of random objects from eBay—a fake banana, a pink horse, a jar of marbles—true tchotchkes. Then they assigned each object to a writer like Colson Whitehead, Nicholson Baker, and William Gibson to craft a short fiction about each item. The objects were then sold to the public for more than 30x their original value, confirming the duo's suspicion.
In their book on the project, they summarize the project as such: "It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off."
I can think of no better synopsis for Gone Home than this statement. Yes, there is much there to chew on. A lesbian coming-of-age story drenched with nostalgic and teenage desperation, the intimations of a ghost story, the influence of BioShock on auditory narrative, a love letter to Kill Rock Stars-era Riot grrl and punk. These are all the intertextual elements that create the appropriate narrative universe that you then occupy.
But ultimately, Gone Home is about stuff, the detritus of everyday existence that is so laden with meaning and context, that it is enough to tell a complete story on its own. Stripped away are the machinations of contemporary game design, its bombast and bluster, and what is left emerges as the intense and emergent web of modern familial existence.
A demanding letter from a grandfather, a book on reigniting intimacy, a torn Earth, Wind and Fire ticket stub, a VHS of The Bridge on the River Kwai, a bottle of whiskey and two empty shot glasses, and dozens of crumpled notes. Independently useless, but collectively they paint a picture of a family tearing at the seams, unrequited dreams of writerly freedom, unfulfilled promises of marital bliss, a naked adolescence yearning for discovery, and then there's you.
But this is all told through items bearing no more economic value than the Significant Objects of eBay. And that's just the thing: we are taught as game players to treat inventories as transactional. Mushrooms, pizzas, ammo, and crates are our currency in an achievement economy that only betters our current status, never complicating it. When we've depleted our supply, we are vulnerable. Gone Home inverts this arrangement—we are at our weakest and most knowable when we leave things behind.
For decades, games have struggled with nuance and searched for a way to weave stories with the tools native to the form and with its own tongue and cadence. Gone Home is a signpost on that summit and promise that games are much like Gone Home's Samantha—an adolescent only beginning to touch the fringes of adulthood. — Jamin Warren
Illustrations by Eric Stafford