One of the things I love about entertainment is the way it allows you to temporarily quiet those parts of your brain that deal with daily concerns and ignite those that gather strength from fiction and narrative. Stories let us experience new perspectives and develop empathy, while also creating real-seeming universes inside our own experience. Novels, books, films, television, and games can all do this. Additionally, one of the pleasures of playing a good game is the feeling of solving a problem.
Every game, at its roots, is the same: get from point A to B, given constraints X, Y, and Z. Even situations presented as “combat” within a game are problems to solve. If the player character is surrounded by a given number of enemies, with a set amount of resources, in a confined arena, how would you navigate the playing field to win? Games are things you do, whether it’s a crossword puzzle, an app, or a high-definition console-focused blockbuster. The great games are the ones that combine engaging puzzles like these with compelling, well-written, well-acted narratives. When they get it right, it feels like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book that’s coming to life a page at a time. It’s play.
Fallout 4 (2015)
I spent three months, off and on, playing through Fallout 4 and several of its downloadable content add-ons (DLC). That’s because it’s a massive game, and some of its most engrossing diversions are those that have nothing to do with the central quest, e.g., building and fortifying camps throughout the game’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. The story is a decent mix of sci-fi and Western revenge—you play as the survivor of a nuclear holocaust who rode out the destruction in cryogenic stasis, only to awaken and find your spouse dead and child missing—but it’s enhanced through compelling gameplay loops. So-called “open world” games like this are all about the thrill of exploring and the feeling of discovery, and Fallout 4 wasn’t short on either.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)
Probably one of the best games I’ve ever played, and the more I think about it, one of the best games of this or any generation. The first three games in the series1 are wonderful action-adventure titles that echo the Indiana Jones films in their blend of suspense and romance, but they’re still rooted in the kind of superhuman, supernatural fantasy that’s common in game stories. This isn’t bad, of course, just one way to do things. But two years after Uncharted 3, the studio released The Last of Us, a grim thriller that revolutionized narrative in gaming and brought new nuance to the human side of the story. As a result, Uncharted 4 benefits not just from the technical prowess they brought to the earlier games, but from the emotional experience that players were given in The Last of Us.2 While Uncharted 4 is visually stunning and mechanically pleasing, it features a remarkably mature story that revolves around the main character’s marriage, and the biggest stakes in the game deal with communication skills and the nature of relationships. The script and acting are wonderful, and the creators do a stunning job and investing their characters with life. I think about this game all the time.
Just Cause 3 (2015)
Sometimes you want to blow stuff up like you’re in a cartoon. Just Cause 3 is so hilariously over the top that you don’t even blink when you add a jetpack to your wingsuit and become a mercenary version of Iron Man. Gorgeous, goofy, incredibly fun gameplay.
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (2016)
I’m counting this because, though it’s an expansion to a game I played and adored in 2015, it’s bigger than some stand-alone game. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best games of its generation and easily in the running with the all-time greats, and this wistful, elegiac sendoff is almost better than you could imagine. The subtext of the main game was the central character’s weariness with his role as a hero for hire, and this conclusion is a meditation on finding meaning in life. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time or ability to replay the entire game (it’s scope is staggering), but I’ll always love it.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition (2014; originally 2012)
What a fantastic, fun game. It starts with a great idea—you’re an undercover cop in Hong Kong working to take down organized crime—and builds on it with strong writing, interesting story missions, and a pleasantly complicated combat system. It keeps you right on the cusp between challenge and mastery. The studio that made it closed down in 2016, making a sequel nothing but a dream, but at least we have this.
No Man’s Sky (2016)
I say “finished” because there’s no way to actually finish this game, so why not list it here. The concept is great: you’re an interstellar explorer, and you wake up on a barren planet and immediately have to find a way to survive, repair your ship, and solve the mysteries of the universe. However, there’s no narrative to drive you. It’s essentially Side Quests: The Game. I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing, but after stopping for a week or two, I realized I had no need to go back.
Mafia III (2016)
I was obsessed with this game when I played it. It’s that fun and rewarding. The gameplay loop is simple but irresistible—set your target, plan your attack, rinse and repeat—and the story is strong, too. You play as a biracial Vietnam vet working your way through a corrupt New Orleans-style town to overthrow the mob that betrayed your family, and the story is rife with the open bigotry of the Civil Rights-era South. It boasts an amazing soundtrack, too, that really makes the fictional world feel textured.
Gone Home (2016)
Wonderfully done. No other characters, one setting, and a story you put together by interacting with the environment. I love playing things that experiment with the form like this and do it so successfully.
Dishonored 2 (2016)
I loved the first Dishonored, and while the sequel has the same style and beauty, the gameplay’s a little lacking. I had fun sneaking around and solving puzzles, but the story was never convincing.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016)
Absolutely wonderful. The sequel to 2013’s Tomb Raider, which rebooted the 1990s and turned it into a less cartoonish adventure story, this game was a joy to play. It nimbly shifts between sections that are “on rails,” that is, that pull you forward from point to point on a predetermined path, and those that allow you to explore the open world. The story is good (all about dealing with family tragedy and coming of age), and the mechanics are finely tuned. I ate it up in a week of holiday-enabled playing time, and loved every bit of it.
Lords of the Fallen (2014)
I keep thinking I like Dark Souls, but I don’t.
Grow Home (2015)
A fun, sweet little game with a neat mechanic (you make a plant grow into the sky, opening up new places to explore), but a little forgettable.
Super slick, super fast, not for me. I get it, though.
Metro 2033 and Metro Redux (2014)
Decent-ish monster shooters with goofy stories. I’d probably be more tolerant if it was a bad movie.
Divinity: Original Sin (2015)
A nice injection of humor into the role-playing genre, but too much of the game winds up being about managing your items (collecting, selling, etc.). I had fun, but couldn’t lock in.
The Order: 1886 (2015)
Hyped as an early title for the PlayStation 4, and better than I’d heard, but ultimately not that good. The game regularly introduces new mechanics, ideas, or weapons, only to remove them the next moment. As a result, you feel more like the game is playing you.
Homefront: The Revolution (2016)
A mess of an open world. I didn’t mind the Red Dawn ripoff of a story, either (North Korea exploits a backdoor in all U.S. tech and promptly invades), which is saying something. It just wasn’t interesting.
(Note: All games played on PlayStation 4.)
In alphabetical order:
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine