15. Pokémon Go
For a few months in 2016, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people swiping at their phones, trying to catch a Psyduck superimposed on their local streets. The news was full of reports of people mobbing hotels or parks to find virtual critters. But Pokémon Go was more than a fad: it showed us a new way for video games and real life to combine. Friendships, communities and rivalries formed over the years as people went on cross-country or global trips to catch ’em all.
14. Papers Please
(Lucas Pope, 2013)
Sorting through the passport details of potential immigrants to an eastern European state doesn’t sound like the stuff of video-game magic. But this is an extraordinary and gripping game, where the rules of entry are constantly shifting and where lives perpetually hang in the balance. As a commentary on the cruelties meted out to desperate stateless people, it is as heartbreakingly relevant now as it was almost a decade ago.
13. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
You are the general standing between the people of Earth and an alien invasion that’s quickly overwhelming the cobbled-together resistance. When you send out your troops, there is a good chance that not all of them will return. XCOM is extraordinary because it’s high-stakes, frightening, and consequential: this is a desperate battle for survival, not a power fantasy. It embraces heart-pumping last-minute scrabbles, plans gone awry, devastating failure and unlikely success. And when you do snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, you never forget it.
12. Forza Horizon 4
(Playground Games, 2018)
From idyllic Cotswold villages to stark Scottish highland runs, the fourth title in the open world Horizon series acts like a glorious interactive advert for scenic Britain. With expert use of high-end lighting techniques and an astonishing eye for detail, the world is an absolute pleasure to drive around – and you get to do it in hundreds of beautifully modelled cars. No wonder so many people found it such a comforting lockdown escape route.
(Derek Yu, 2012)
Ask video game scholars for an example of a “perfect” game, and Spelunky is often mentioned. Delve into Spelunky’s ever-changing and yet just-about conquerable subterranea, and you’re never sure whether you will fall into lava, be dispatched by a bat, accidentally rob a shopkeeper, be impaled on spikes, or make it all the way to hell. A sublime combination of gameplay ideas, daunting environments and random chance combine to make this cave-diving classic feel inexhaustibly fun.
10. Super Mario Galaxy 2
When Nintendo untethered Mario from gravity in 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy, we discovered that bending or erasing the laws of physics only created more gleeful and innovative ways for him to run and jump. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a meteor-shower of brilliant ideas, each level based around a single idea that could support hours of fun, but instead appears only briefly and vanishes while you’re still smiling. Perhaps the greatest expression yet of the joy of movement that Mario embodies.
9. Mass Effect 2
Generally, when aliens die in video games, it’s because you’ve just shot them, and not because – for example – you’ve accidentally condemned their entire race to extinction with your bad choices, or spent tens of hours befriending them and then walked into what turns out to be a suicide mission. Mass Effect 2 is a blinding science-fiction story about uniting in the face of the impossible, allowing you to create the kinds of relationships with its many characters and themes that film and TV just cannot compete.
8. Red Dead Redemption
The story of retired outlaw John Marston riding across a lawless America as the modern era dawns is the stuff of classic western cinema. The fact this huge open game manages to provide all the atmosphere of a John Ford western, with the violence and horror of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, says much about the narrative and world-building skills of the Rockstar hivemind. Unlike GTA, this is a game with characters you care about in a world that makes emotional sense. It is, in many ways, truly profound.
7. The Last of Us
(Naughty Dog, 2013)
Brutal, elegiac and uncompromising, The Last of Us dragged the emerging “dad game” genre into a stunningly realised post-apocalyptic landscape and then beat the crap out of it. The growing relationship between Joel and Ellie provides the emotional core, but they exist in a world filled with sad stories as well as monsters – and Naughty Dog knows just how to do both. But amid the horror, no one, no one, will ever forget the giraffe scene when they see it.
6. The Witcher 3
(CD Projekt Red, 2015)
Geralt of Rivia isn’t your typical world-saving fantasy protagonist – he’s a grizzled monster-hunter with a low tolerance for bullshit and an ongoing thing for his ex-girlfriend, a powerful witch. And this allows us to see European low-fantasy through different eyes: there’s little glory here, not much nobility, and good doesn’t automatically triumph. The stories you find in this vast world are never what you’d expect, and neither are the creatures. You’ll find plenty of fantasy tropes in The Witcher 3, but they’re always turned on their heads.
5. Portal 2
The original Portal was a perfectly realised physics puzzler with a fun side story about a misanthropic AI, a corrupt scientific genius and a slice of cake that didn’t exist. The sequel takes those narrative threads and crafts a vast dystopian tale of hubris and nemesis, relishing the concept of Glados as a sociopathic sensei to the imprisoned Chell. Intricate, clever and engrossing, it’s also among the funniest games ever made.
4. Grand Theft Auto V
Here is the story of three revolting men in a terrible city filled with cheap death and dead-eyed satire – and yet this game is certainly a masterpiece. Rockstar’s pastiche on fame, Silicon Valley, and bromance action movies shows utter commitment to the cause, with every inch of the landscape feeling alive and authored. And the narrative is only a tiny part of the experience, with the game’s multiplayer component, GTA Online, becoming an anarchic playground that has lasted a decade. No other open world gangster game has ever come close to taking this Godfather down.
Mojang’s creative playground is the closest video games have ever come to combining the spontaneous and improvisational qualities of Lego building and tabletop RPGs. Utterly open to player decisions and desires, it revolutionised the idea of cooperative play, introducing unparalleled depths of creative collaboration. Over the past decade it has become a place to play, to grow up and to be a child again. It made stars of the biggest YouTubers in the world, and it has changed innumerable lives for the better – including my own.
2. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The most beautiful Zelda game, and also the least restrictive, Breath of the Wild is bottled freedom, a banquet of tempting horizons. It allows for curiosity, daring and playful creativity; where in previous Zelda games you’d see a target across a chasm and know you’d need a hookshot to get over there, in Breath of the Wild you might freeze a boulder in time, whack it with a hammer a few times to store up some kinetic energy, then cling to it as it flies across the gap. You can start fires, run away from fights, see something that looks a bit like a dragon in the skies and end up chasing it deep into a forest halfway across Hyrule. A game you can live inside for months.
1. Dark Souls
Dark Souls’ predecessor, Demon’s Souls, challenged every convention of its time when it came to what players needed from a game. Comprehensive tutorials? An easy-to-follow plot? Characters or maps telling you what to do and where to go next? Nah. Just drop them into a dark fantasy full of fascinating, terrifying undead things, leave some weapons around, and let them work it all out. This approach to play, informed far more by old fantasy novels and history’s earliest, most challenging games than by the slick blockbusters of the time, gave players a thrillingly rewarding gauntlet to overcome. But then Dark Souls took those ideas and weaved them into a forsaken world so intricate, desolately beautiful and fascinatingly interconnected that it still feels bottomless. This is a game in which every encounter can surprise you, every misstep can lead to an ignominious death, and every scrap of dialogue or discarded ring provides a clue to what happened in this towering kingdom of fetid swamp-towns, crumbling castles and cities abandoned to ghosts. This game would enthral millions and make a cult celebrity out of its creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, the one-time unenthusiastic coder who is now president of FromSoftware. It has proven extraordinarily influential, and yet none of the “Soulslike” games that followed have captured its mystery and exquisitely exciting combat (except perhaps Miyazaki’s own gothic horror game, Bloodborne).