Teaching about game development can be deceptively problematic. Lots of ubiquitous words crop up (fun, play, best, immersive, favorite), which reinforce outdated critical modes. In fact, in many cases, students aren't even talking about the game itself, but the game's trappings (character, story, graphics, sound), none of which are particular to that medium. To learn about video games, one must look at the part of the encounter which exemplifies that format. Why should a specific idea inhabit an interactive experience and not a movie or text? Keeping in mind that subjective lists are inherently flawed, I've compiled an evolving collection of games and game-like experiences that reinforce the medium by examining its particular strengths. This is not a list of good games, or games I like, or influential games, or anything like that. These are video games that could only be video games. As such, they're useful guideposts for anyone who hopes to develop a more robust working vocabulary.
Kentucky Route Zero
The "magic" in magical realism is usually made in spectatorship. Even at a magic show, the audience-member-turned-assistant is just a misdirecting prop of the magician. In the interactive age, a true illusionist's highest feat would be to convince the audience they're authoring the impossible themselves. Kentucky Route Zero revitalizes the conventions of the point-and-click narrative by limiting the flow and expectation of information, showing that finding answers is nowhere near as satisfying as generating better questions.
The Half Life series
Beyond all of the social and historical significance attributed to Half Life and Valve, playing through the series remains a rewarding exercise in pacing. The series' directors understand that narrative and gameplay tensions always coexist in dialogue with one another. Using that dual system in conjunction with thoughtful level design, they protocologically impart emotive value to basic action. Resource scarcity, obstacle density, and cramped interiors resolve into player-anxiety. Quiet sections follow bombastic set-pieces, imparting relief. No cheesy music. No NPC voice telling you that you're safe. The levels tell the player everything they need to know.
At first glance, the Dark Souls series would seem like any other medieval fantasy game. In fact, it's not until the player picks up the controller for the first time that they realize the gift Dark Souls has to give: death. In most games, death is both a temporary endpoint and a means of negative player-feedback. Here death serves a much more interesting, mechanical function. Dying respawns defeated enemies, healing them, and sometimes giving them new abilities. Death generally makes the game more difficult. While its player-base is often considered masochistic, that assumption misses what these players understand. In modern gaming, a player-death is a temporary setback at worst. Restart, re-load, re-checkpoint, whatever. In Dark Souls, death has a large impact on how the rest of the game will function. Perhaps it goes without saying, but if death has a greater value, doesn't it follow that the preceding life has greater value as well?
Lazy game designers direct players via text or waypoints. Better game designers give instruction via contrast (light vs dark, vivid vs muted). Then there's Journey. From the first moment to the last, the player knows where they're headed. Alone, or in a pair, the narrative becomes the "why" of the exercise, not simply the "how" of navigation. "Why" trumps "how" any day of the week.
In addition to demonstrating an olympic-level harmony between visual, sonic, and gameplay styles, the first Katamari Damacy game offers a unique insight into a subtle brand of player-motivation. Sonic and optical feedback accentuates an ever-increasing sense and scale of accumulation. The in-game acquisition of small items provide a platform for conveyance. The user intrinsically asks of larger objects, “can I pick that up too?” which leads to an organic and understated desire for continuation. Katamari Damacy leads the player through a game of increments, all the while disguising its pull, allowing the player to feel the effects of a carefully engineered ownership which they believe they designed for themselves.
A warning first. This game will delete files from your hard drive. At random. This will include anything from vacation photos to critical elements of your operating system. Do not download or play unless you are comfortable with that reality. Most games have win conditions which allow users some amount of experiential wish fulfillment. Even games that don’t have discrete win conditions usually have loss conditions, but those losses are typically limited to the gamespace. A game that can extend its loss conditions beyond the scope of its purview raises some very interesting questions and reminds users that whatever the diegetic trappings of a video game, they remain software at heart. The gameplay of Lose Lose is a mcguffin for something much larger. It implies that games do not live in a vacuum, instead having the potential to mechanically instantiate themselves beyond old-media systems into the architecture of the digital world.
There is a smoldering skeleton in your basement and the police just knocked at the door. You have twenty-two seconds left on a summoning incantation that will either a) usher into existence a fetid horror to swiftly vanquish your foes or b) turn all of your skin into bone and all of your bones into dust. You think the spell will work this time. You have an inkling. You can only guess at first because this immensely complicated, abstract, and thoughtful game has no tutorial whatsoever. It trusts that anyone who sits down to the séance table will bring their curiosity and patience. Which is not to say that this is a game about trial and error—it isn't. It's about something more. It's about reading the first line of a book written in an unfamiliar tongue, and working for the remainder of the night to learn enough to translate the rest.
Despite the reality that your kids are definitely playing Minecraft right now, ubiquity does not really indicate value. Nor does the fact that Minecraft can be a great learning and expression tool. Or even that it fosters innovation, social cooperation, and technological skills among children and adults. None of those reasonings are particular to what makes it an important game from a pedagogical perspective. Simply put, Minecraft and its ilk, are game-generation-machines. They don’t just offer a somewhat illusionary opportunity for users to play through a pre-existing narrative experience, they create a space for users to become authors in their own right and to expand that generative agency to others. Minecraft allows its users to develop external experiences and, as such, offers a sense of interactive freedom at a comprehensive level. Which is more authorially potent, a story you’ve been given permission to read or a story you’ve allowed yourself to tell?
Howling Dogs provides for a brief-but-powerful reminder that video games remediate older art-forms and re-animate them through interactivity. One could argue that a Choose-Your-Own adventure storybook and a Twine game are essentially the same thing, but that misses out on the very foundation Howling Dogs builds up from—hidden repetition. A book is a self-contained entity but a Twine game has no player-obvious endpoint. There is no last page to flip to. The repetition in Porpentine's game creates a doubt in the value of user-input over time. Considering the themes at work in the game, that level of self-doubt takes on an incredible statement.
Mirror’s Edge is a violent, first person action game, produced by the folks who perennially “make” the new Battlefield product and distributed by one of the most vilified corporate publishers on the planet short of Zynga. It is also a game which prominently features a non-white, non-sexualized female protagonist fighting for liberal political ideologies against capitalist control. While this duality, in and of itself, should be enough to pique your interest, the mechanics of the game’s conveyance systems are what secure it on the list. Using a constant, subtle-but-clear, color code, Mirror’s Edge creates an innate communication with its audience. By the end of the first few minutes, a player can determine interactive environmental factors by sight without the need for obtrusive UI elements. Mirror’s Edge, and games like it, reinforce the important adage that the best UI is actually no UI.
David O Reilly
Mountain is probably not a game. That is why you should play it.
A great game will, through its mechanics, teach you something about yourself. Not in the Greek tragedy sense of character-identification, empathy, and catharsis—but by allowing you to make choices and having those choices reflected back to you through the cracking mirror of hindsight. It is almost impossible to consistently do the right thing in Papers, Please and therein marks its value. Eventually, everyone commits an atrocity, either via oversight or through bureaucratic malice. The question will then remain, did the game make you a monster, or did it just create a scenario where the pre-existing monster could be brought to light?
Kim Swift and Valve
Even if Portal (and Portal 2) didn’t feature an amazingly complex take on gender, relationships, surveillance, and control, it would still be a charming puzzle game with some great design work and Jonathan Coulton singing backup. However, none of the these features are specific to gaming. What game designers can learn from the Portal series boils down to how we handle our own limitations. No interactive software can give the user absolute freedom to explore and uncover an inexhaustible world. Game experiences are limited by what has been pre-programmed therein. However, a game that unfolds via diegetic layers can simulate that act of discovery. Portal achieves just that by incorporating pre-established gameplay mechanics with a mechanic-driven narrative, and a level design that, quite frankly, puts the B in subtle.
Unfortunately, this is not a game that you can play. This demo for the reboot of the Silent Hill IP appeared on the PSN store in 2014 without any pomp or circumstance. Nobody knew what it was, or what it was for, we just downloaded it. Then the internet went bananas. Twitch streamers, YouTubers, message board posters—everyone expressed their experience of the demo and everyone seemed to have a different take on how it was meant to be played. For a while, nobody could pin down the cause and effect relationship between action and feedback. It no longer seemed like a pre-coded game. It seemed alive, and as such, there was no game meta. The meta of a game happens when you play it at a purely mechanical level, ignoring the diegesis and pretty much everything else. It happens when a player turns gameplay into a science. For a beautiful few days on the internet, P.T. defied any meta and allowed its entire audience-ship to be fundamentally terrified and confused. A productive, catalyzing, fearful confusion—seems like something we could strive for. Sadly, due to some Konami-related issues, it would seem that P.T. will never be released in its true form (Silent Hills) and the demo has been removed from the Playstation Network.
Sleeping Beast Games
How do we communicate complex ideas to one another, especially in high-pressure scenarios? Linguists and sociologists agree that, as humans, we aren’t terribly efficient communicators. Language itself is so personal and abstract that trying to express uncommon specifics to another person is one of the greatest challenges a human can undertake. So, when one player knows that the spaceship’s Borkulator needs to be reset in the next six seconds to avoid an asteroid collision, but cannot see the Borkulator on their display panel, they must frantically try to reach out to one of there fellow crew-mates, all of whom are dealing with their own specifically absurd crises at the moment. This speaks to a profound, protocological allegory for the human experience. We may forever be searching for our proverbial Borkulators, never sure who can help us, and uncertain how to explain the problem in the first place.
Western gaming is almost entirely predicated on progression. Sometimes that progress is diegetic (as in an RPG where your character gains levels and new abilities) and sometimes that progress is meta-diegetic (where you, the player, become better at the game by playing it for some amount of time). The connection between these two methods follows a very pragmatic ethos—work will lead to accomplishment. If one confronts a problem which bests them, they should pick themselves up, dust themselves off, try a different aggro build, and head once more into the breach. Not so in Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Never have I experienced a game where I am supposed to disengage. Much like language acquisition or modern theories on information seeking behavior, The Witness will occasionally offer a puzzle, the solution for which you do not—and cannot possibly—know at that time. The player is required to take a pause, explore some other part of the game world, and notice things around them. Brute force does not win the day in this game, but a management of effort and the, exceedingly human, realization that there are just some things we do not know yet. If games inherently represent a call to action, what could be more satisfying than the slow realization that sometimes we must, as did Archimedes of Syracuse, take a bath to find our eureka.
Thirty Flights of Loving
Brevity is the soul of wit, and as so many modern games are artificially lengthened to justify their price point, Blendo Games and their prolific catalogue offer a welcome, albeit-brief, alternative. New game developers can look to Thirty Flights of Loving (and similar titles like Gravity Bone and Atom Zombie Smasher) as pillars in the value of a short-form, interactive experience pantheon. Being under fifteen minutes per play-through, Thirty Flights of Loving serves interactive, semi-experimental fiction well, developing unique characters, themes, and plot devices from user action and abstract interpretation. This game exemplifies an economy to the art form. Not just the management of a monetary budget, but how a developer might employ time, experience, and action in fleeting moments of scarcity.
In the world of text, there is no illiteracy. We cannot really participate in the written word unless we read it. Similarly, the vast majority of games need to be played to be experienced. This is not a trope we question. Gameplay leads to progress, progress leads to completion. There’s a lot of social theory that gets thrown around with the Bioshock series. Ayn Rand, John Calvin, Plato, and Karl Marx all make some pretty big cameos. However, they seem to be evoked to feed into the critique of the relationship between game player and game designer. Bioshock handles this in a very interesting and, at the time, ground-breaking way. I don’t aim to spoil it for any potential players out there, but as one begins to engage with Rapture and the world of Andrew Ryan, they would be wise to ask questions of motivation. How and why do we intertwine the game and its play? Can there be a book that exists simply to refute the literate?
It’s difficult to put a social-edugame on this list. Not that I don’t think that type of work is important, but by definition, these projects put the "social education" first and the "game" second. For the same reason that agitprop films privilege attention to their content over their form, agitprop games are more about the message and, typically, far less about their medium. Unmanned isn’t perfect, falling into some of those familiar traps, but it offers a guidepost for those who want to talk about larger-scale social issues via a game-space. The project makes the political into the personal, without relying on interpersonal drama to carry the experience. It’s the mundanity of Unmanned that makes it of value to game- and political scholars alike. Much like the work of Hannah Arendt, when we seek monsters, we tend to find bureaucracy. Since games have an amazing educational potential, I hope to see more issue-based games coming from all walks of life in the future… as long as the “game” comes first.