When people think of classics in the realm of gaming, they usually think of the original arcade favorites: Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, games that emerged at the beginning of gaming’s inception. But what about the now, the things the gaming community will remember as the cream of the crop, the best of the best even when gaming progresses into new horizons? You have your Mass Effects, Halo, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, AAA titles that people remember for the revolutionary changes they brought to genres as a whole, but there are plenty of examples of more niche titles from 2010 to now that have reached enough popularity that there’s little doubt they will become things to remember in the future. These are games that have broken what we think video games should be by bending genres and even creating entirely new ones unheard of before, giving players fantastic new experiences and worlds to get lost in and obsess over for years to come. So let’s go over some examples of phenomenal titles and what exactly makes them so great, why they’ll stick in the minds of gamers for many years to come as remarkable examples of the medium. There is no distinction between AAA and indie here; instead I will be focusing on the quality of the games and what they did right instead of how much money was poured into them. Whether the game was made by one person or by a hundred people, these games define what gaming means altogether, and shows us the bright future of interactive experiences that lies ahead. The games I want to bring up are more of what the industry standard should be heading towards, instead of the bloated direction of microtransactions and downloadable content that we are plagued with as of late.
Everybody who knows me personally knows the adoration I hold for Hotline Miami. I own a replica of the main character’s clothing article of choice, play through both games in the series at least once a week and hold numerous high scores on PC and console alike. Something struck a chord with me at first glance and sparked a raving devotion for years to come, and it took me quite a long time to discover why. It’s the violence, even brutally excessive violence has been seen in many games before, but the way Hotline tackles it is so incredibly unique and mind-warping that it seems to confuse players at almost every turn but yet somehow maintains a coherent narrative as it goes. The perfect ’80s aesthetic, the lovingly crafted retro graphics, the incredible level design, the most fitting soundtrack in video game history because of how well it related to the era and the high-octane action the game presented, the first game was leaps and bounds ahead of the competition even with the incredibly popular AAA titles that were released in 2012. Even with games like Sleeping Dogs, Darksiders II, and Dishonored released that same year, Hotline Miami stood out to me because it was just so breathtakingly new. It provided what may very well be the best depiction of psychopathy in a game to date, and this is in a world where Manhunt and Spec Ops: The Line exist to represent similar representations of a fractured human psyche. It defied usual gaming tropes and created something superb. The sequel may not have captured the sheer lightning in a bottle aspect that the first did, but even that will be remembered because people loved the original with such ferocity that they demanded more. It’s a game that the internet still discusses and raves over to this very day, and will be remembered fondly by many not just because of their frustration at the brutal difficulty but because the sheer insanity of it all is something I have yet to find again after 3 years of searching.
Although just released recently, Undertale has already captured the hearts and minds of many gamers. While at first glance it appears to be your standard turn-based JRPG fare, it instead turns our to be a bizarre, magical journey that tests what you think you might know about characters in games and examines how we interact with NPCs as a whole. You could choose to befriend the monsters, misunderstood creatures that at first may appear wicked and be very kind in actuality, or eliminate them all in standard fashion. The game remembers your actions and evokes guilt for your wrongdoings, and it never forgets, which is perhaps why it will remain so remembered. For those who have beaten it more than once, you’ve likely felt the awful pangs of killing those you once called friends, and it’s something that I’ve certainly not forgotten even after leaving the game alone since my second playthrough. The characters are so well fleshed-out, enough so for fans to want a sequel despite the finality of the story just so that they could continue to interact with the core NPCs. In addition, the fantastic world Undertale crafts out of a relatively simple humans versus monsters concept, the combat remains one of the best examples of both arcade shooter and RPG combat in video games, and the whole thing was largely built by one guy over the course of several years. The level of dedication put into the game alone is admirable enough for it to be held in the minds of gamers for the foreseeable future, but that something so beautiful came out of all this heart and effort is truly awe-inspiring. The game and the story behind it are sure to be legendary for this generation of games and the next.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
Here’s one that everybody’s heard about. By now you likely know about the detail placed into the massive game world, the sheer personality exuded by the many unique characters littered throughout Novigrad and Skellige, and the stellar monster-hunting combat that demands concentration and timing on the part of the player if they are to succeed against the odds. The Witcher III is a prime example of how to do open-world games right, and on the part of CD Projekt Red, how to treat your consumers with the respect a major company owes its paying customers. It puts a fitting resolution on the end of the long-running Witcher series and introduces so many new elements that it may as well be an entirely new IP. Every quest includes backstory and dialogue, all of which is so well-written that it avoids becoming boring. The lore is interesting, the combat is spectacular, and nearly everybody who’s played the game can tell you that the sheer amount of content included (even without the sixteen free pieces of DLC and the well-priced expansion pack) is nothing to shake a stick at. Unlike most other open-world games, however, the side content is anything but busywork. It’s a collection of fables centered around Geralt of Rivia, and it offers something unique to experience at every turn. The entire series remains one of the best story-driven gaming experiences out there, but the third installment goes above and beyond everything we expected. Everything surrounding the game is positive, and there are so little negatives to be found that it’s nearly astonishing. In this world, where every AAA title has something to ruin it (like the disappointing ending to Mass Effect 3 or the buggy release of Assassin’s Creed Unity,) it’s incredibly refreshing to see a big-budget game where everything is tackled spectacularly, and while I don’t play it nearly as much as I should with all the other games out there, the adventure is still something I continue to remember fondly, and I suspect I’m not the only one with that opinion.
Perhaps the only game in the Souls series that will remembered more than Dark Souls, Bloodborne blends the spectacular combat of Dark Souls and its subsidiaries with what may be the most enthralling world I’ve ever experienced in gaming. Yharnam is shrouded in mystery until the very end, but it offers sheer horror and grotesque beauty every way you look. The encounters are all built around the many disgustingly unique enemy types the game has on offer and present challenge to the player without being unfair. Not only is it a delicious example of how to present players with a proper challenge that respects their intelligence and reflexes without resorting to simply throwing more enemies at the person holding the controller, it also sets a new industry standard for how creative one can be with its monsters without becoming too bogged down with variety. Every beastie in Bloodborne is expertly designed to present a unique challenge, and there are dozens of them, each one showing off more of the artist’s twisted psyche than before. The game play is fantastic, the art style is absolutely phenomenal, and the world is something so stunning that it alone is evoking enough love from players to make it stand head and shoulders above the framework that Dark Souls laid. For now, Bloodborne is the best title in the Souls games to me and many others, and until something even better comes along it will remain fresh in the minds of players as such.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
While my previous examples have been largely centered around the fleshing out of characters and the game world, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the only game to make me seriously consider whether I’ve ever played something that addictive before. While its world is ambiguous at best, giving little information other than the brief cutscene at the beginning, the gameplay is so dynamic and the setup so utterly replayable that I still find myself making several runs in one day out of habit to see what luck with item generation I have that day. Every mechanic is tightened to perfection, from the control to the animation, and it’s easy to tell that no effort has been spared in the creation of Edmund McMillen’s masterpiece. No playthrough is the same, and each one is so utterly different that the game almost seems to urge you on for ‘just one more run.’ Even the original still holds a large following from back in 2011, not even mentioning the sheer number of players present every single day for the objectively superior Rebirth remake. It’s another classic example of how great something can be even with only a small group working on it, and is not only one of my favorite indie titles of the past few years, but one of my favorite games of all time.
These are the most prominent examples of what I believe to be the new standard of interactive experiences, especially in the realm of gaming. Each one either uses elements present in the usual genres to their maximum capabilities to do something infinitely more exciting than the norm, or creates something immensely unique with sheer creativity that excels because it does something so much different than the player anticipates. Whether through gameplay, story, or sheer amount of content on offer, these are experiences that will be incredibly hard for game companies in the future to live up to. Not all of them are the AAA titles that big-budget developers expect to make a lasting impact (look at Watch_Dogs if you want to see how utterly forgettable a AAA title can be without proper ambitions,) in fact, most of them are from smaller companies that use their best ideas and abilities to maximum potential to make something memorable and just fun. While this article is intended to show what the industry standard should be aimed towards, also take it as a recommendation to buy and play any of the games listed above if you haven’t already. Each one is something so spectacular that it deserves to be played by all who can afford to play it. The games industry might be a rocky environment, what with all the microtransactions, greedy companies, and shovelware, but that doesn’t mean that talented people can’t create incredibly experiences, as independent studios or as big development firms with the magnitude of wealth as Kojima Productions. There will always be great games, and the ones worth remembering will be kept in the annals of gaming history for decades.
On that note, does anybody remember Resident Evil 6? That’s what I thought.