The “trouble” with reading amazing books is that I began to demand the same level of quality from all media. Heavily commercialized music and film are basically the worst, in my opinion, but these media also have well-established art scenes that produce meaningful, important work.

Video games, on the other hand, haven’t been so lucky. Until recently, most video games have been childish power fantasies, typically with second-or-third-rate narratives and misogynistic overtones. The movement away from physical discs and into digital storefronts (e.g. the iOS App Store, Steam), though, has allowed small developers to create a thriving “art game” scene that also sells well enough to self-perpetuate. These games take advantage of the medium to emotionally immerse you, to engage with art in a way that music and film simply cannot, and to make your choices/personality part of the art itself.

Here are ten amazing games from the last year or so. Most of them don’t have any sort of shooting, while physical conflict in others comes only as a consequence to your actions. Half of them I played with my significant other. All are a joy to experience. If you quit video games during your teenage years, it might be time to take a look again. There’s some amazing stuff out there right now.

Explore an island

(Wander wherever you want. No one will tell you how to play.)

1. Proteus (PC/Mac)

2. Miasmata (PC)

3. Dear Esther (PC/Mac)

4. Gone Home (PC/Mac)

These sorts of games drop you on a beautiful island and allow you to explore with no (or minimal) explicit goals. Thus, these games feel spacious, never urgent, and you care about your actions because nobody’s telling you what to do next. In the end, it means that every player’s experience is wonderfully unique. Proteus procedurally generates a new island every time, one full of secret musical creatures. Without uttering a single word or stating any objectives, it’s a profound look at the passing of time, the seasons, nature, and death. In Miasmata, you spend the game traversing a gorgeous tropical island complete with day/night and weather cycles, with only a compass and triangulation to map your travels, searching for precious plants to synthesize a cure for the plague. In Dear Esther, you wash ashore on an island in the Hebrides, wandering its ghostly features (including a cave full of lovely, glowing neurons!), all the while triggering fragments of your tragic story with Esther as you pass certain landmarks. Gone Home takes a similar formula to these games but instead places you at your family home after a trip abroad. You spend most of the game rifling through the family’s belongings, trying to find out why they’ve vanished, and the tiny details of their lives (dubbed VHS tapes, rejection letters) add up to a powerful narrative about love, identity, and family.

Save (or endanger!) your friends

(My friends, just before I sent them out. Two died, one was never the same.)

5. XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within (PC, XBox 360, iOS)

6. FTL: Faster Than Light (PC, coming soon to iOS)

7. The Organ Trail (PC, iOS)

These games are closer to “traditional” video games but differ in two essential ways: 1) you can (and really, really should) name the characters after your friends and loved ones, and 2) death is permanent, so when a friend is gone, they’re gone forever. This adds amazing tension to the every decision and leads to some great post-game conversations. XCOM puts you in charge of defending Earth from an alien invasion, and plays out like a really great game of Risk, except your friends are the cannon-fodder soldiers and every time they die you feel like a horrible person. FTL makes you the captain of a spaceship trying to save the galaxy, but the game is often hilariously merciless; if a fire breaks out in one room, for example, will you be willing to vent the air (and your friend) into space, in order to save the ship? The Organ Trail is a play off the old “educational” game The Oregon Trail, but with a zombie bent. As you try to reach the haven of the Pacific Northwest (no comment from this Vancouverite), you have to decide if you really have enough food and gas for all your friends, and what to do if one of them gets bitten. Grim, fun stuff!

Make your choice

(The narrator says, “Then he went through the left door”, but do you have to obey?)

8. The Stanley Parable (PC)

9. The Wolf Among Us (PC, XBox 360)

10. Dishonored (PC, XBox 360)

Games are supposed to be about choice, right? They’re supposed to give you some sense of agency in the narrative. Unfortunately, that control usually isn’t real, and you’re just following the orders presented on screen: “Go to point A”; “Defeat B”; “Collect 100 of C.” Boring. So what happens when you really give players a choice, the opportunity to play however they want? These are the games that are most fascinating to me. The Stanley Parable toys with the notion of player agency, presenting you (for example) with two doors and having a cheeky narrator say, “Then Stanley walked through the left door.” Do you listen to him, or do you go through the right door? And best, every time you think you’ve outsmarted or broken the game, the narrator reminds you that the game is one step ahead. The Wolf Among Us functions much like an episodic television show about fairy-tale characters living in the slums of New York City. But in many significant ways, your words and actions determine how this show plays out. And Dishonored (sic) appears, at first glance, like a typical action game with a steampunk setting. It quickly becomes clear, however, that you don’t have to kill anyone to succeed, that you don’t even have to fight unless you want to, and your gameplay philosophy has direct consequences for the tone of the story.

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Jay Hosking’s Ten Video Games That 
Will Renew Your Faith in the Medium.
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