Less of a game and more of a social revolution, it’s difficult to remember a time when Minecraft was this weird, blocky survival game that some behatted Swedish dude was selling despite not having bothered to finish it.
Minecraft is the ultimate sandbox game. Not only does it give you the freedom to roam and do whatever you want, it can be practically any game you want. It can be a farming simulator, a city-builder, a survival horror, a fantasy RPG, a contraption-designer. There are probably mods that turn it into an FPS and RTS as well. Its simple idea of taking a piece of geometry and putting it somewhere else has the remarkable effect of unlocking the entire gaming spectrum for players to tinker with.
It’s that aspect of Minecraft which has made it such a resounding success with children across the globe. But what made it famous, and what I will always remember it for, is Night One. That terrifying moment when the sun goes down on Minecraft’s picturesque cubic world, and things start to come out in the dark.
In a desperate bid to survive, you hastily dig out a small hovel and wall yourself in, cowering in the dark, listening to the growls and creaks and moans outside, hoping to whatever god is listening that they can’t break in. The fact that a game which has captured the imaginations of millions of kids can also scare a grown adult out of his mind pretty much sums up Minecraft’s genius.
4. System Shock 2
System Shock 2 is two things. Firstly, it’s my favourite of the immersive sims. Secondly, it’s the most frightening game ever made.
These two aspects of SS2 are delicately intertwined. System Shock 2 is an immersive sim that subverts the concept of immersive sims, and in doing so generates terror unlike any other game. In most games of this genre, the open-ended gameplay is a form of empowerment. In choosing how to deal with the environmental puzzles set before us, we gain satisfaction. But in System Shock 2, all of the choices available to you are simply ways to demonstrate how little power you have.
No matter which road you go down in System Shock, be it Military, Engineering or Psi, there will come a point where the game bites you for it. You’ll run out of ammo, or come across a door you can’t hack, or something. And in that moment you’ll feel utterly helpless.
This undermining of the player’s power is communicated through every other aspect of the game. It’s in how the Cyber Modules, the game’s upgrade points, are delivered unto you by SHODAN herself. It’s in the very atmosphere of the Von Braun, smeared in blood, writhing with worms and strange organic matter. It’s in the possessed crewmembers, who scream 'I’m sorry' as they helplessly attempt to bludgeon you to death. It’s in the pulsing, abrasive musical score, and the stuttering, venomous tones of SHODAN’s voice.
System Shock 2 isn’t a game that makes you jump. It’s a game that grinds you down, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until you turn it off and go to bed and lie there, unsleeping, the terrors of the Von Braun corroding your thoughts like caustic soda. Truly, there is no other game like it.
3. Mass Effect 2
Find me a game that is more consistently intense over of the course of 40 hours, and I’ll see you in Accident and Emergency when the doctors are trying to restart my heart. Mass Effect 2 took the promising but cold and clunky universe of the original, stripped back the systems, upped the combat ante, and added a warm glaze of humanity over the finished dish.
What makes Mass Effect 2 so special, however, is how it puts its characters at the fore of both its story and its systems. Your gang of dirty-dozen-esque operatives are each glass cannons in their own way, enormously powerful but easily broken. It’s up to you to shore them up, painstakingly earning the trust and loyalty of each before you embark upon the dangerous journey through the Omega 4 Mass Relay.
As you see to the needs of each of these characters, you get to know them, become invested in their struggles, make friends, perhaps even lovers. When you embark upon that final mission to destroy the Collector Base, the threat is that much more palpable because you genuinely care about all of these characters. The fact that any one of them could die should you make the wrong decision only adds to the tension and terror of this spectacular galactic raid.
Mass Effect 2 is also a game which deals intelligently with genocide while also featuring aliens that sing Gilbert and Sullivan. No other game has made the cold infinity of space seem so colourful and human.
2. Half Life 2
It’s one thing to create a game so good that it spawns an entire genre. It’s quite another to create a game so good it almost kills it. That’s what Half Life 2 did in 2004. Valve released an FPS that was so far ahead of anything else that, twelve years on, the genre still hasn’t found an answer to it. Valve itself doesn’t appear to have an effective response, as demonstrated by the eternally elusive Half Life 3.
What made Half Life 2 such a triumph? There are lots of areas you could point to, its pioneering use of physics in the form of the Gravity Gun, its emphasis on consistent, relatable characters, brilliant individual chapters such as ‘Anticitizen One’ or ‘We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’. But the secret of Half Life 2’s success is simply Valve’s masterful craft, its ability to seamlessly weave all of these elements together.
This is evident in how the environments gradually shift around you, how every new area you encounter offers a new challenge, or a clever twist on something you encountered, how the action gradually intensifies until you’re fighting furious street-battles against platoons of Combine soldiers supported by towering Striders, their devastating laser-beams shattering the masonry of the buildings around you. It’s in the mouse-controlled rockets of your RPG, the devastating alt-fire of the shotgun, the delicious ‘budda-budda-budda’ of the Overwatch Assault Rifle. There’s not an element of Half Life 2 that hasn’t been agonised over and, as demonstrated by the lost chapters, mercilessly cut out of it if it didn’t work. It’s that obsessing over details which means Half Life 2 remains the pinnacle of the FPS genre.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Having watched the evolution of CD Projekt’s work since the original Witcher debuted in 2007, I expected The Witcher 3 to be good. But I didn’t expect to be sat here, championing it as the best PC game ever made. Nevertheless, here we are.
I’ve played The Witcher 3 for over a hundred hours, and I could happily spend another hundred riding through the windswept swamps of Velen, dashing through the twisting streets of Novigrad, and sailing between the misty isles of Skellige. There are dozens of ruins and caves and other locations which remain unexplored in this vast and stunningly realised world, each with a little tale of its own to tell.
Indeed, it isn’t the scale of The Witcher 3 that makes it such an incredible achievement. It’s how it makes this world worthy of such a time investment. Like Half Life 2, every aspect of the game has been painstakingly thought over, only on an impossibly greater scale. The Witcher 3 has side-quests that would form the entire plot of lesser games, deep and twisting storylines in which the situation is rarely as it initially seems. A simple contract to kill a monster lurking in the woods can reveal a complex love triangle and a decision that can determine the fate of an entire village.
In The Witcher 3, players encounter Deus Ex-style decisions with almost every new adventure they embark upon. But as BioWare knew when designing Mass Effect 2, such choices only matter when the player cares about the characters. Hence The Witcher 3 isn’t simply huge, environmentally stunning and mechanically deep, it’s a game that is also warm and funny and heartfelt and sad.
The Witcher 3 is often a dark game, showing the effect of war on rich and poor alike with unflinching realism. It’s a game that elegiacally states, 'There are no happy ever afters.' Yet it is also able to find solace in quieter moments, a drink and a game with a couple of long-time friends. A stolen kiss at a midnight ball. A sharing of stories on the eve of battle. A reunification with a long-estranged daughter. The simple joy of the open road on the dawn of a summer morning. It’s also perhaps the first mainstream game that could genuinely be called sexy, as it embraces the fun and humour and absurdity that is a natural part of human passion, rather than ignoring or dismissing or satirising it.
Witchers are supposed to feel no emotion, which for much of the medium’s history would make Geralt of Rivia the perfect videogame protagonist. And yet, as shown by the well of humanity barely concealed behind Geralt’s cat-like eyes, CDProjekt has created what is almost certainly the most emotionally rich game in existence. For this reason, amongst a thousand others, I believe it to be the finest example of what gaming can achieve.