In Part 2 of Brian’s decade-spanning countdown, #50-26.
50) Gone Home. Fullbright, 2013
In a way, Gone Home has become every bit the barometer Quantum Break is at the top of this list: anything better than this is great. I know it’s become a somewhat controversial game, but all that really means is that a vocal minority of angry white men have chosen it to be their cultural Frankenstein, and have grabbed their pitchforks and their almost certain domestic violence convictions and taken to the internet streets to complain about something with girls in it. Gone Home is by no means a perfect version of itself; it spends too much time on the haunted house fake-out that comprises roughly the first half of the game, but considering how prominent so-called “Walking Simulators” were before its 2013 release and how prominent they are now, it’s hard to argue the game’s relevance.
Fullbright is one of the truly unique indie developers these days, focused entirely upon environmental storytelling and period-specific detail to the detriment of everything else, but for all its weird jankiness and spotty voice acting, there’s a soul at the heart of Gone Home that just wants you to remember what it was like to record over VHS tapes and write things in spiral notebooks. It’s nostalgia weaponized for a specific purpose and not just as frilly window dressing, and exists for me as the jumping off point from good to great in 2010s video gaming. Everything from here on out is close to unimpeachable to me.
49) Fire Pro Wrestling World. Spike Chunsoft, 2017.
This is the only sports game on this list. But wait, you might be saying, professional wrestling isn’t a sport. Shut up, nerd, it is. At least for the purposes of gaming. You can’t write scripts into these kind of games to decide who wins, so it’s a sports game. What makes the return of Fire Pro so exciting in the sports game landscape of the late 2010s is how freeing it feels. This is not an authored experience (save for the two DLC packs that offer exactly that in new story modes).
What makes Fire Pro work is how malleable it is. No two people play this game the same way. There are tournaments for it, expanding the relatively simple three button premise into a full fledged fighting game, based around reflexes and timing and knowing the systems. Other people use it as a pure wrestling simulator, making federations and storylines of their own (another piece of DLC makes this into a proper game mode, even if it’s not quite as deep as it should be). Even other people still, myself included, use Fire Pro as a way of tracking the industry itself, downloading all the most realistic and newest versions of wrestlers and updated all the newest champions (a quick shoutout to TheAvenger3 on Steam whose works are by far the most detailed and best to use for this purpose). Fire Pro is my most played game on Steam and I’ve probably actually physically played it for about 10% of that time. Perhaps the funnest way of all that people play this game is in the top screenshot, just making all manner of goofy characters and throwing them at one another. You don’t even really have to like wrestling to have Zangief from Street Fighter beating up a disturbingly anthropomorphic Yoshi, or to finally have that Goku vs Superman fight everyone on the internet in 2010 wanted to see.
Fire Pro is on this list because it is Fire Pro, and nothing else is.
48) The Stanley Parable. Galactic Cafe, 2013
How rare is it for a game to outwardly tell you it’s supposed to be funny and then actually deliver? From it’s joyously weird demo to its infamous secret endings, The Stanley Parable completely transcends its origins as a Half-Life 2 mod and becomes something much more, verging at times into an almost Dadaist deconstruction of video game tropes and design. A lot of the concepts explored here are taken to their ideological extremes in creator Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide, but that is even less of a game than this one, and exists really as more of a primer on how to critique games and how much meaninging authorship can really have in what is an inherently collaborative industry, but it doesn’t really qualify for this list. It is, however, a fascinating experience that I recommend if you’re at all into the semiotics of games.
I can’t really say much more about The Stanley Parable without giving away a lot of the endings and why they work so well, so let me just end by shouting out Kevan Brighting’s tremendous work as The Narrator. Somehow both welcoming and imperious, it’s his smooth, guiding voice that brings you into this world, and if you misbehave, Stanley, by God it can take you out as well!
47) Celeste. Matt Makes Games, 2018
So, here’s a secret: I’m bad at platformers. I enjoy playing them a lot, but even the original Mario games are probably a dash too hard to me really get into. I don’t have the wiring and quick-twitch reflexes to really “get good” at them. And since I generally refrain from putting games I haven’t beaten on these sort of lists, I had to leave out Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest, which I both enjoyed a lot. But I couldn’t ignore the majesty of Celeste, arguably the best platformer ever made.
If you define these games by how intricate and well-developed their systems and animations are, Celeste delivers.
If you define them by sharp action, bright art design and poppy, enjoyable music, Celeste delivers.
If, for some reason, you define them by their stories, Celeste delivers. It’s a masterful game, with one of the truly great soundtracks in recent years and a wonderfully rueful optimism and empathy in its heart. It’s truly great.
46) Her Story. Sam Barlow, 2015
I don’t want to typecast my readers, but there’s a very good chance you haven’t played Her Story, which is a shame, as it’s one of the few detective games that actually succeeds at making players feel smart. I won’t spoil the plot, but over the course of 3-5 hours, you have to splice together footage from a series of police interviews from the 90s to put together a cohesive timeline of a murder. This is done primarily by simply listening to whatever clips you have unlocked, and searching for whatever you think a relevant keyword might be. Slowly, over the course of the game, you begin to construct a narrative in your head, and depending on how much effort you put into making it work, it can come together like a puzzle or you can get stuck banging into the same walls over and over. Like Papers, Please, it takes a very banal concept and makes it feel as enriching and clever as anything else I’ve ever played, simply by letting the player dictate just how much information they want to have at any one time.
45) What Remains of Edith Finch. Giant Sparrow, 2017
Death in gaming is a strange thing. For most games, it’s both the primary fail state and the main way of dealing with enemies. And yet, there really aren’t many games about death. This is what makes What Remains of Edith Finch stand out, even among other walking simulators. Set in the Pacific Northwest, Finch sees the titular Edith, last remaining member of the supposedly cursed Finch bloodline, returning to her childhood home. It’s a ramshackle tower of a house, straight out of Lemony Snicket or Harry Potter. Rooms upon rooms upon rooms, each one sealed off in remembrance of a dearly departed great aunt or cousin or patriarch. In this house, Edith seeks to uncover evidence of their shared curse by exploring each room and learning what she can about the lives they led.
Which is where things get all magical realism. When Edith finds some shred of evidence of another Finch’s life, a quick, 5-10 gameplay segment will happen where the player controls that Finch at the end of their life, narrating the events that led to their respective deaths. This might sound very grim and macabre, but in practice it’s kind of charming. Every Finch’s flashback plays differently, from basic puzzles to point and click to an astonishing top down adventure bit that not so slyly comments on the inherent zombification of this whole “video games” thing. What ends up happening is that each member of the family feels distinct, memorable and almost mythic. These are the people Edith has been hearing about her entire life, like the great aunt you never knew who slipped on a marble and broke both her legs falling down the stairs. Or your weird uncle who lived in the basement and got hit by a train one morning.
The tapestry of this family creates its own sort of mythos, one where, despite all the tragedy that has befallen them, this weird little family keeps on living. Because that’s how we deal with death in this world. We don’t restart from a checkpoint. We don’t save scum. We just sort of… go on, knowing that it’s there, waiting for us. In the end, the curse of the Finch family isn’t some eldritch horror or witches’ curse, but the sort of thing lots of people have to deal with: not knowing if anyone will think about you after you’ve gone. Thankfully, Edith brought her journal.
44) Titanfall 2. Respawn Entertainment, 2016
Wow, they made a prequel to Apex Legends? That’s wild. No but seriously, did you play Titanfall 2? If you consider yourself at all a fan of single-player FPS games, you owe it to yourself to do so. It doesn’t have a great story, or really terrific gunplay, or even some crazy twist or an incredible sense of humor. What it does have is a fundamental goodness that seeps out of every pore, and also maybe the best first-person platforming of all time. The Titan gameplay is great and fun and very reminiscent of classic mech games like MechWarrior 2 or Armored Core, but it’s out of the mech where TF2 paradoxically shines. The sheer speed and fluidity of the wallrunning, sliding and mantling on display here far outdoes even Halo 5‘s sleek movement, becoming almost a ballet of carnage at its best moments. Also, the level design is oftentimes inspired, being at its best when the player is separated from their Titan and forced to survive in the vertical slabs of a prefab housing factory or the sheer anxiety of being stuck in a time-travelling science station. It’s just a good, good game that wasn’t marketed nearly well enough and sort of fell into the abyss of late 2016. Real FPS heads remember, though. We never forget.
43) Night in the Woods. Infinite Fall, 2016
Here’s a game that’s hard to describe. Not quite platformer, not quite an adventure game, not quite a walking sim, Night in the Woods is above all things a game about that weird period between high school and “adulthood,” when everyone you knew as a kid is moving on and you all know that eventually, you’re going to stop hanging out. Starring an anthropomorphized cast of young adults, chiefly depressed lady cat Mae Borowski as she returns to her hometown of Possum Springs, Woods has an overarching plot about disappearances and occultism and weird horrors, but that’s not what it’s about.
Possum Springs is dying from corporate neglect, and everyone there, from Mae’s friends to her former classmates who hate her to her parents who don’t understand her, is slowly being squeezed to death by the whims of whichever big box store decides to blow into town next month. The businesses are dying. Everyone’s working retail at places nobody can afford to shop in. Kids are just… hanging out. Not getting into trouble, not vandalizing anything or making out or harassing cops. It’s paints a very specific picture of middle American malaise and the slow death of capitalism, and it’s truly and utterly fascinating.
42) Tacoma. Fullbright, 2017
Forming a kind of diptych of games with overt leftist politics with Night in the Woods, Tacoma is the second game from Fullbright, and like Gone Home, it’s a walking simulator about exploring people’s bedrooms to figure out who they are. Unlike Gone Home, its appeal isn’t based on nostalgia for things past, but upon speculation about our collective future. You see, Tacoma is set in space. And not just any space, but a space station, also called Tacoma.
After an unspecified disaster struck the station, your character, Amy Ferrier, is a data recovery specialist sent to find out what happened. All of Amy’s interactions are with the station’s dormant AI, ODIN, whose recollection of the events are preserved entirely through digital wireframe recordings of the crew. So the crux of the game is this: you explore the station, seeing where these people worked and lived, while also getting fully replayable feeds of what they were doing and saying while they were trying to figure out what was going on. Without spoiling, I’ll say that the story of what happened to these people eschews the Immersive Sim style death and destruction that this game’s lineage can be traced from, and instead acts as a bit of parable about the power of unions. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of jam, well I guess there’s always YouTube.
41) XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Firaxis Games, 2012
Uhh, it’s XCOM. You probably know what it is. Or you don’t, and it holds no interest for you. While I enjoyed this game’s sequel quite a bit, nothing will ever feel like this one did for me. The sheer chaos and joy of winning an unfair fight. The wonderful interplay of the sim parts and the fighting parts. The slow, steady increase in power and knowledge and the bonds that you form with whatever soldiers keep surviving these hectic firefights. The dumb nicknames they give each other. While the last act feels rushed and some of the enemies (Chryssalids) can be overwhelmingly unfair in the mid game, there’s still not quite anything else like XCOM.
40) Firewatch. Campo Santo, 2016
Apparently this is the Walking Sim section of our list. Firewatch stands out from this pack by being almost an open world walking sim, experienced at whatever pace the player wants it to be. Set in the late 80s, Firewatch is the story of Henry, a man overwhelmed by his wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis who flees his life to spend a summer as a fire watchman in Wyoming. Featuring the talents of several former Telltale employees, including writer Sean Vanaman, Firewatch exists as both one of the better and more enthralling video game stories of the decade and a kind of slapdash, weird mismash of genre and style. At its best, it feels genuinely surprising and full of pathos. At its worst, mawkish and exploitative. Sometimes this happens within the same scene. Still, it’s a pretty impressive debut title that manages to carve out a very unique and visually expressive style out of the gate.
39) Overwatch. Blizzard Entertainment, 2016
Hey, it’s Overwatch. Is it good? Maybe. Is it important? Maybe. Is it responsible for furthering loot box bullshit? Maybe. Is it fun? Yes, absolutely. There’s a reason it has outlasted all its competitors in the hero-based shooter field.