The gaming medium has grown a lot from its roots as a TV ping pong simulator. From 2D platformers to 3D role-playing games, from sports to fighter plane combat simulators, video games have encompassed almost every obvious genre. In fact, we’ve covered so much ground with games that developers have had to start getting even more creative to stay on the cutting edge. As games become more and more artistic, we’re seeing more games that push the envelope even in terms of their genre. Here’s a list of five fantastic games that, twenty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to convince anyone were games at all.
The idea of the Full-Motion Video (FMV) game has been mocked for decades. In the early days, games like Night Trap and Sewer Shark on the Sega CD were scorned for low-quality visuals and terrible acting from their live performers. The genre has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years, however, with creative developers finding innovative ways to tell interesting interactive stories with live actors. The cream of the recent crop is Her Story, a game carried by the masterful performance of Viva Seifert, a British actress and musician whose compelling portrayal of the titular character makes the game a must-play. Gameplay consists of using a police database to search for videos via keywords, each of which provides clips from a police interview with Seifert’s character. Your goal is obscured in the beginning, but hearing and searching for certain words in one video will lead you to others, and eventually to the solution to the game’s central mystery. It’s a whodunnit with a fascinating twist, told in a way only a video game could pull off.
Universal Paperclips / A Dark Room
A web browser-based game in which you click a button to make individual paperclips, not represented graphically but with a simple counter, doesn’t sound like a recipe for a great experience. However, beneath its intentionally boring-sounding premise is one of the most unique and addictive games I’ve played in some time. Universal Paperclips subverts expectations by starting out as one thing and quickly transforming into something else. Part of the joy of playing it is discovering these twists for yourself, so I’ll only say this: keep going, keep inventing whenever you’re given the option to, and keep finding new ways to make more and more and more paperclips.
Another worthy game in this genre is A Dark Room, a similar browser-based game that starts off as seemingly one thing and transforms as you play. It’s how little these games show you that increases the sense of mystery. Your imagination works wonders in filling the gaps that these games’ simple text interfaces leave open. Each can be completed in a sitting, and it’s worth your time to give them a shot.
Lots of games have tried to be movies. Final Fantasy and Uncharted really pushed the cinematic storytelling angle. Metal Gear Solid 4 even had cutscenes that were over an hour long. But Virginia is the first game I’ve played that genuinely feels like you’re playing a movie, not just watching one (and playing a bit in between cutscenes). Virginia is the story of an FBI agent whose first case involves a missing boy in a small town. Aside from its obvious Twin Peaks inspiration, the game plays out as a mostly wordless story filled with mystery and mind-screwing madness. While the action all happens from a first-person perspective, the game employs jump cuts, just like in a movie, that move the action along. It’s hard to describe, but it’s super effective for setting the mood and telling a story. While the plot is ultimately pretty hard to fully comprehend (at least in a single playthrough), it’s such an interesting experimental game that it gets my unreserved recommendation.
A game that sees you scrutinizing passports for discrepancies doesn’t seem like it would be a ton of fun, sure. But what Papers, Please does with its bizarre premise is create palpable tension and empathy for people that are less fortunate. You are a border security agent for a fictional European country. War is at the door, and any day now things could escalate. Your job is to make sure undesirables — terrorists, spies, and the like — don’t gain access to the country. You also have a responsibility to provide for your family. Letting the wrong people in could cost you monetarily, and deciding to accept a bribe in order to pay your bills might be the difference between your family starving to death and not. But is that nice old lady with the expired passport, who’s offering you money in exchange for looking the other way, actually a terrorist who will kill untold numbers of people? For such a simple-sounding game, there really is a ton to experience, and what it has to say about international conflict and personal empathy alone is worth the price of admission.
Often derided as a “walking simulator,” Gone Home is one of the first big-time indie games to show that being a “game” doesn’t mean you need to kill bad guys or earn points. Gone Home tells the story of a girl coming home from college, only to find some wires got crossed and her family isn’t there to greet her. As she explores the (frankly gigantic) house, she begins to uncover a mystery about her loved ones. The game’s creepy atmosphere is almost a bait-and-switch; while there’s plenty that might make you feel tense, this isn’t a horror game. At its core, it’s an experience that puts you in the shoes of a character and lets you live one particular evening in her life. The attention to detail found in every room is staggering, and it’s clear a huge amount of effort went into making this house feel real. Objects can be picked up and explored, even if they in no way relate to the story at hand. Losing yourself for a few hours in the house of Gone Home is a must for people who love video games. You’ll gain a new appreciation for the artform, and you’ll be part of a story of redemption and acceptance that the world needs right now.