The best games of this generation
- 16 October, 2020 21:31
A scant few weeks from now, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will ride off into the sunset, replaced by the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. But what do we care, right? This is PCWorld, and my graphics card will function just as well next month as it does today, new consoles be damned.
But there’s no denying that hardware changeovers tend to drive the industry forward. Freed from the constraints of aging consoles, games leap ahead—not just in the living room, but on PC as well. By this time next year, today’s best games may well look...well, old. Time marches on, even children get older, consoles embrace modern SSDs and Ryzen CPUs, et cetera.
Thus the end of a console generation is also the perfect time for a retrospective. We’re feeling nostalgic about the last seven years and the games we played along the way, and we thought we’d celebrate those games one last time before they fade into the depths of our Steam libraries.
From Alien: Isolation to The Witcher 3, here are some of our favorite games of this generation, in no particular order.
The presence of the Alien (read: Xenomorph) in Alien: Isolation is still my least favorite part. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a marvel of artificial intelligence, and a true hunter. Being its prey is as frustrating as it is fascinating though, with the Alien’s unpredictable nature a challenge that all-too-often results in your death—and a reminder that yes, you’re playing a video game. Tension broken.
But for all my complaints, Alien: Isolation has stuck with me. Creative Assembly’s rendition of the space station Sevastopol is brilliant, drawing on the look of the films and then extending it in ways both big and small. It feels like you can reach out and touch Alien: Isolation, from its charmingly overengineered save stations to the tactile motion detector that’s often your only companion. It feels real and weighty in a way few worlds manage.
It’s a real shame Creative Assembly hasn’t gotten the chance to work on another project like Alien: Isolation since. I love Total War, but honestly Alien: Isolation is their best game this generation.
Rainbow Six Siege
Much of this generations games focused on refining or making good on old ideas. Games got larger, longer, more photorealistic—but very few of them got more complicated. Rainbow Six Siege is one of the only games to take the power of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (and the PC of course) and use it to create an all-new experience, one that wouldn’t have been possible on older consoles. Siege went small instead of large, creating intimate multiplayer maps where nearly every surface was destructible, and where out-thinking your opponent was every bit as important as reflex shooting.
Going large got its due this generation as well, and battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite deserve to be in the “next-gen” discussion for broader cultural impact as much as their impact on the industry. But Rainbow Six Siege is still my favorite, and for all the hours I’ve put into it since 2015, I’m only sad I didn’t play more.
Kentucky Route Zero
I’ve joked before that Kentucky Route Zero is the “Game of the Generation,” if only because it took the entire console generation to release. The first chapter arrived in January of 2013, before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 even launched. The final episode wasn’t released until seven years later, in January 2020.
It is a vast and ambitious and messy story. It’s an intensely personal study of a handful of characters, and a broader tale about America in its latter-empire days. It’s a magical escape to a world of unmapped highways and quirky museums, and a grimly familiar parable about capitalism and the people it allows to fall through the cracks. It’s an awe-inspiring work, featuring some of the best writing that’s ever graced the medium.
And it’s inspired so many other developers to do their best work as well. You can draw a line between Kentucky Route Zero and so many other games this generation. As I said in our review, it’s gaming’s Velvet Underground. Not that many people played it, but all the ones who did? A decent chunk decided maybe they’d like to make video games as well.
Disco Elysium is one of the games that drew inspiration from Kentucky Route Zero—and plenty of other places, as well. If there were a reward for most text in a game, Disco Elysium (our 2019 game of the year) would probably win it. Over the course of 15 to 20 hours, its story covers everything from Communist theory to cryptozoology to disco, religion and music, detective’s intuition, the perils (and wonders) of drug use, and more.
You might see all of that or none of it, because Disco Elysium is less about quantity-of-text and more about how all that writing is used. It’s a role-playing game, superficially resembling the Infinity Engine CRPGs of old, but your stats also play a part in your conversations. Invest heavily in Shivers, you might become more in-tune with the city’s mysteries. Dump points into Encyclopedia, and your inner monologue will interject with information that may or may not be relevant to the task at hand, filling you in on not just the make and model of a nearby car, but who invented it, and why the factory eventually went out of business.
It’s an incredible piece of interactive fiction, and one begging for repeat playthroughs. Be an upstanding detective or run through the story as a corrupt grifter or a bumbling amnesiac. Disco Elysium not only supports the latter, but even rewards failure in ways that make it more entertaining to be incompetent.
I’ve told this story before, but the moment I knew I’d love Prey came at a preview event here in San Francisco. I was lost in thought, mulling over an elevator shaft I’d missed out on during my hands-on time because I lacked the skills to repair it. Then I heard someone mention they’d made it to the top—by force, using Prey’s GLOO Cannon to create platforms they could hop up.
That sort of systems-driven ingenuity is what I love most in Arkane’s games, and hell, in games in general. And Prey didn’t disappoint. Somewhere, someone is (probably) still working on a proper System Shock 3, but for my money we already got it. Talos I is up there with Alien: Isolation’s Sevastopol for this generation’s best-realized environments, and the open-ended (almost Metroid-esque) nature of Prey made it a joy to explore, from its Art Deco offices to its industrial underpinnings.
I loved the story as well, from disorienting opening to equally disorienting end. Prey is pulp, but its characters are entertaining caricatures and Arkane has a knack for picking the perfect moments to subvert expectations. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the run-based expansion Mooncrash, which I’d pick as another of my favorites this generation were it not intrinsically tied to Prey.
A lot to love. To be honest, it’s a toss-up whether Prey or Dishonored 2 is Arkane’s best work this generation, with the latter’s Clockwork Mansion and Stilton Manor being some of the finest level design...well, ever. But I love Prey, and I still feel it was criminally underrated and underplayed, so here it is.
Next page: The best games of this generation continues
Kerbal Space Program
When I reviewed Kerbal Space Program in 2015, I called it “the embodiment of everything that’s noteworthy and valuable about PC gaming.” High praise, and I stand by it.
Kerbal Space Program is the kind of niche experiment that only ever thrives on the PC. Putting you in charge of your own NASA, it asks players to learn actual rocket science in order to thrive. Do you know how to airbrake? Or how to feather the throttle to optimize fuel usage during takeoff? Maybe not—but if you want to get off the planet Kerbin, you’re going to have to learn. I spent many nights with Kerbal Space Program open on one monitor and Wikipedia open on the other.
It’s entertaining though! That’s the best part. “Edutainment” is a dirty word in video games, and for good reason. A lot of edutainment is thin, like a layer of chocolate over green beans. But with Kerbal Space Program, you learn not because you’re being force-fed rocketry facts, but because you want to build something better. That’s so rare, and it’s so rewarding when you overcome your previous failures and finally land on Mun or orbit Eeloo—or even just parachute back to Kerbin without exploding.
And to think that Kerbal Space Program began with a single employee, Felipe Falanghe, at Mexican marketing firm Squad. The story of Kerbal Space Program’s development is just as strange and surprising as the game itself. I can’t wait to see what 2K does with Kerbal Space Program 2, nor can I wait to play more of Falanghe’s Balsa Model Flight Simulator.
There are games I struggle to describe because they’re so strange or complex. Then there’s Celeste, which I struggle with because laying out what it is in prose oversimplifies and cheapens the experience.
Celeste isn’t all that complicated. On its face, it’s a precision platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy—and a great one, I might add. A lot of people have tried to imitate Super Meat Boy over the past decade, but Celeste is one of the few that managed to give me sweaty palms and aching thumbs.
That’s the surface level. Then there’s the subtext, but again, it’s not that complicated or even that hidden. As I wrote when we bequeathed Celeste our Game of the Year prize in 2018:
“Celeste Mountain is a metaphor—for depression, for anxiety, for self-loathing, for all the various demons people fight day-to-day, often behind the scenes. That’s the ‘reveal.’ It’s not particularly subtle or unique, the mountain-as-metaphor-for-struggle, but Celeste perfectly weds its mechanics with its themes. Celeste believes in your ability to keep fighting, to keep trying even when the world seems arrayed against you or when you fall down further than you’ve ever been before. Celeste believes in you.”
Simple, and thus hard to convey why it’s so special in words. Celeste resonated with me though. It was the perfect game for me at the perfect time, releasing when I was struggling with my own mental health. Celeste said keep going, don’t worry, you can make it up the mountain—and it did so while repeatedly kicking my ass with some of the best platforming this decade.
Nier: Automata asks a lot of its players—but mostly patience. The talk of Nier: Automata having “five endings” is a bit overblown. It doesn’t. It has one proper ending, broken up into five acts. That said, the misconception is understandable because the second act is almost a carbon copy of the first (but from a different character’s perspective) and it’s a drag.
Push through though. Persevere, because Nier: Automata still has a lot to say.
To some extent, Nier: Automata is the same old “What does it mean to be human?” story about robots. It’s well-trod territory, both in games (i.e. Detroit: Become Human) and in other mediums. But Nier: Automata’s take is fresh and weird, from the way it uses perspective to manipulate the player, to the way it transitions between action-brawler and shoot-em-up and a half-dozen other different genres, to its discussions of Nietzsche and Pascal and other philosophers.
It looks like a sad anime game and it is a sad anime game, one wherein blindfolded androids work to rid the world of machines. Over-the-top doesn’t begin to describe it. There’s a truth to Nier: Automata as well though, an emotional weight. Flashy fighting is just a vehicle for tragedy, for a treatise on cycles of violence and those who participate in them, knowingly or unknowingly. And then...hope, when events are at their darkest. Love.
As I said, Nier: Automata takes a while to get going, and as someone who reviews games, I know that’s a cop-out. It’s tough to hear a game “gets better” at the 15-hour mark. Nier: Automata wouldn’t work without that slow burn though, because what’s actually happening is it’s conditioning you to accept the world as it is, all while preparing to rip the blindfold from your eyes.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Three years on, I still struggle to put words to What Remains of Edith Finch, our favorite game of 2017. Broken up into vignettes, Edith Finch is about the ill-fated Finch family. There’s a rather fanciful conceit, in that each family member has a room, and upon their death that room is sealed off. It’s left the Finch home a labyrinth of rickety extensions, turrets, and secret passages.
You explore this maze and, one by one, explore the lives of the Finch family. Or rather, you explore the deaths of the Finch family. Each vignette covers someone’s last moments, and I know that makes it sound like a grim snuff film. It’s not though. Some are sad, yes, but others are humorous, or surprising, or optimistic, or so fantastical that you don’t really know what to believe.
Moreover, they’re unique. Each vignette in Edith Finch centers on a different type of interaction, be it snapping Polaroids of wildlife, playing through a comic book, relaxing on a rope swing, or splashing around in the bathtub. It’s a wealth of experiences—some better than others, but all of them contributing to the overarching mythology of the Finch family.
None compare to Lewis Finch’s story though. I’m loathe to spoil it, in case this is the first you’re hearing about Edith Finch. But if you’ve played it...well, you know. It’s one of the cleverest 10-minute sequences I’ve ever witnessed, and one of the most harrowing. There’s a moment where you realize where it’s headed, and it’s like plunging into an ice bath. Just gut-wrenching.
And it only works because it’s a video game. I think that’s part of what makes Edith Finch so important and impressive. Interactivity is key, not just to Lewis’s story but to the entirety.
Return of the Obra Dinn
A mystery on the high seas, Return of the Obra Dinn casts you as an insurance assessor trying to figure out what went wrong on the titular merchant ship, the Obra Dinn. You need to apply a name, a face, and a cause of death to every person on the ship’s manifest—and you do so by traveling back in time to the moments where everything went wrong.
These vignettes start simple enough, figuring out the captain based on his hat and the fact he’s mentioned by name. Before long you’re forced to use your best inductive reasoning though, piecing together people’s names and relationships based on clothing, responsibilities, or even body language.
There have been many “detective” games over the years, but Return of the Obra Dinn is the one of the only ones that feels like a proper mystery. All the clues are there, and it’s up to you to piece them together and crack the case. I wish I could wipe Return of the Obra Dinn from my head and experience it again. It’s that good.
I hope Lucas Pope keeps getting to make exactly what he wants, with no interference. It’s rare, the developer who creates a game with no obvious progenitor. Even rarer, the developer who makes multiple games like that, but between Papers Please and Obra Dinn I think it’s safe to say Lucas Pope is one of the most innovative designers in the industry.
Next page: The best games of this generation continues
I said Return of the Obra Dinn is “one of” the only proper detective games I’ve played. Outer Wilds is the other. Every 22 minutes the sun explodes in a violent supernova, destroying everything in the system. You’re the only one who knows this is happening, because you’ve lived through it over and over and over.
It falls to you to figure out why. Why is the sun exploding? And why are you trapped in this time loop? These are the mysteries at the heart of Outer Wilds. To solve them, you’ll need to uncover the secrets of this abbreviated solar system—but the catch is that everything happens on schedule. Visit a planet early in the cycle for instance and you might find it covered in sand, but return later and you’ll find structures have poked above the surface, and tunnels have appeared where once there were just dunes.
What I like about Outer Wilds is the progression is in your hands. Nothing changes. You don’t upgrade your ship or your suit or whatever. You could “finish” Outer Wilds on your first run just as easily as the last—but you won’t. You’ll likely crash into the moon, or fall off a cliff and die, or step out of your ship without your spacesuit and suffocate. And then you’ll wake up, and you’ll try again, and each time you’ll learn a little more about where you should go and what you should do.
Most open-world games build out thousands of miles of nothing. Outer Wilds presents an alternative, a meticulous clockwork where everything, every structure and every note and every creature, has a part to play in the larger mystery. I hope others take note.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
The first Divinity: Original Sin was good. Not set-your-world-on-fire amazing, but with its flexible character builds and physics system it was a surprisingly forward-thinking CRPG at a time when others (i.e. Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2) were busy mimicking the past.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 proved better than I ever expected though. It was groundbreaking, from its systems-driven combat to its sprawling 100-hour story. The latter was especially impressive, with Original Sin 2’s “Origin Stories” one of my favorite features in recent years. You could make your own custom character in Original Sin 2, but you could also play as defined characters like Fane (an undead skeleton-man who steals people’s faces), The Red Prince (an exiled noble), and Sebille (a freed slave who uh...hates The Red Prince).
Playing these Origin Stories provided a different perspective on events, opening lines of inquiry that were otherwise invisible—even if you had the same characters in your party as companions. It was a great compromise between the usual create-a-character blank slate and a more authored experience, and Origin Stories helped propel Original Sin 2’s narrative well past its predecessor’s.
Like, way past. Divinity: Original Sin 2 cemented Larian as one of the foremost RPG developers of our era. Hell, it even got Wizards of the Coast to entrust Baldur’s Gate III to Larian. If that doesn’t speak to Original Sin 2’s quality, I don’t know what could.
There’s not much to say about Rocket League. It’s soccer, but with cars—and now it’s free to play.
I think the absurd premise is what makes it work though. Most sports games, especially nowadays, aim for a certain style of realism. For Madden, making the “best” football game means making the most authentic. Players, stadiums, even the broadcast experience has to be recreated down to the finest details.
Rocket League does none of this obviously. And yet I think Rocket League feels more like playing an actual sport than Madden or its fellow sports simulations. I’ve watched teams spontaneously “invent” zone defenses and triangle offenses, seen legendary plays lead to last-minute comebacks, I’ve even made a few clutch saves myself. Rocket League is a team sport for the digital era, every bit as thrilling as its real-world counterparts.
Oh, and you can play as a DeLorean. What else could you want?
Soma is not the game I expected from Frictional. Soma’s immediate predecessor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was often referred to as “the scariest game ever made.” It became synonymous with the rise of the YouTube Let’s Play, as people watched others scream their way through a game they were too scared to play.
But Soma isn’t another Amnesia. It’s barely even a horror game in the traditional sense, instead getting by on atmosphere and the strength of its story. A few brief monster encounters break up what’s otherwise a first-person adventure game, as you explore the cramped corridors of PATHOS-II, an underwater laboratory that’s slowly falling to pieces. It’s slow. It’s moody. It’s oppressive. Most of all, it’s depressing.
It wasn’t the game I expected from Frictional, but it’s undoubtedly the one I’ll remember them for. Soma is an excellent piece of science fiction, and an heir to the existential horror that made Silent Hill so unique. And sure, I’m excited to see Frictional develop a proper Amnesia sequel. They’re masters of the craft. I just hope there’s also a Soma successor (spiritual or true sequel) in the works, because at this point dozens of developers have paid homage to Amnesia. Some, like Bloober Team and Red Barrels, have even been relatively successful.
There’s only one Soma though.
Cities: Skylines is one of my most-played games this generation. That number goes even higher if you factor in the amount of time I’ve spent in the Steam Workshop, perusing and installing mods. So many mods.
After the disaster that was EA’s 2013 SimCity, the city builder genre was ripe for a new champion. Paradox and Colossal Order stepped up, transforming the transportation-centric Cities in Motion series into a full-fledged SimCity clone. Everything, down to the color-coded zoning, is vintage SimCity—but so much better. Cities: Skylines supported absolutely massive cities, with dozens of different buildings right out the gate, dynamic water that reacted to canals and dams and pollution, and all the transportation and traffic simulations developed for Cities in Motion.
And not only has Colossal Order supported the game for five years now—adding parks, universities, concerts, a day/night cycle, and more—but the aforementioned mod support turned Cities: Skylines into the ultimate city builder. If you live in a city, chances are the community’s created most of the major landmarks. Even generic Americana, the Targets and Taco Bells of the United States suburbs, are available for import. You can uncap the limitations on city size, enhance the default landscaping tools, build better parking lots and pedestrian paths, and so much more.
Cities: Skylines is more proof—as if we needed it—that catering to modders is great for a game’s longevity. SimCity died in part because EA tried to sell new buildings to people who already felt limited by the default tools. Cities: Skylines focused more on adding new features, with modders adding more buildings (and more unique landmarks) than a dedicated art team could ever manage alone. I suspect I’ll be playing it for years to come, at least until Colossal Order decides to make a sequel.
Next page: The best games of this generation wraps up
Baba is You
This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve written about Baba is You and it never gets easier. Baba is You is so simple to play, and yet incomprehensible otherwise. It’s a puzzle game where the rules are written directly into the environment, i.e. “BABA IS YOU.” You can push these blocks of text around though, rewriting the rules to find a solution.
For instance, given “ROCK IS PUSH” you might remove the “IS,” and thus render the rock insubstantial, opening the passage it previously blocked. Or you might change “BABA IS YOU” to “ROCK IS YOU,” and take control of the rock directly. The catch is that most of the rules are generally tucked into the corners, impervious to your manipulations.
Figuring out what can and can’t be changed is key to solving each puzzle, and I’ve rarely had as many “Eureka!” moments as I did with Baba is You. I probably spent more time just staring at puzzles than I did interacting with them, trying to break down the chains of cause and effect in my head. It’s immensely satisfying—and if I’m honest, smarter than me. Nearly two years after release, I’m still plugging away at the last few puzzles.
The Talos Principle
Who would’ve guessed the team behind Serious Sam would put out one of the generation’s best puzzle games? Quite a departure, and yet Croteam’s take on Portal-style puzzling remains an incredible accomplishment.
The Talos Principle is admittedly less focused than Portal, with puzzles spanning a dozen-odd different mechanics. You’ll redirect lasers to their proper receptacles, rewind time, place crates, use fans to boost into the air, and so on. It’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, and both quality and difficulty vary wildly. The Talos Principle makes good on most of these mechanics though, especially in the bonus “Star Puzzles,” which usually require breaking free from the rigid mainline puzzles and applying some outside-the-box thinking.
And like Portal, it’s impossible to talk about The Talos Principle without mentioning its story—even though the two are very different. Portal’s best moments were humorous. The Talos Principle is a solemn treatise on philosophy and myth, asking the player to engage with a pseudo-biblical story about creation and morality and autonomy. It’s a stunning science fiction wrapper for an already excellent puzzle game, and a great experience in virtual reality as well.
Hitman 2 is arguably a very old type of game. What IO Interactive did with Agent 47 this generation is basically roll back a decade, pretend 2012’s action-packed Hitman: Absolution didn’t happen, and make a sequel to fan favorite Hitman: Blood Money instead.
It paid off. Both 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s follow-up are top-tier stealth games, with IO able to build larger and more elaborate environments than anything in Blood Money. Massive crowds, multiple buildings and vantage points, dozens (if not hundreds) of improvised weapons and costumes—there are endless possibilities for the resourceful hitman.
The level of detail means Hitman ends up feeling like an intricate puzzle box where the goal is the perfect murder. Hitman 2 seems fairly straightforward, but IO’s time-limited Elusive Targets and alternate objectives demonstrate a level of depth you’d never guess at your first time through. Its missions aren’t built to be played once. They exist to be poked and prodded, new (and unique) opportunities uncovered as the simulation reacts to your presence.
And while the premise is dark, the games are much less so. IO’s packed levels full of humor, both authored and implied. My favorite is still Agent 47 as P-Power, celebrity tattoo artist, growling “You need to keep still. I wouldn’t want to stab you by accident,” before doing just that. The consummate professional.
“I have entered into the service of a new gentleman. It would seem he is a gambling man.” Inkle’s become one of my favorite developers this generation, but it’s 80 Days that I return to most often. A loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, it’s an adventure like no other, spanning all seven continents and dozens of cities.
Your goal is ostensibly to make it around the world within the titular time limit, but how—and even if—you do so is entirely in your control. Ride mechanical elephants through India, or fly high overhead in an airship. Bushwhack through South America, or take a steamship from Indonesia to Australia. Take the Transcontinental Railroad from San Francisco to New York and meet the infamous outlaw Jesse James.
And be sure to stop along the way! Check out the Exposition Universelle in Paris, join the circus in Yokohama, explore the ruins of Machu Picchu. 80 Days is still the foremost example of Inkle’s development philosophy, that making a lot of little choices leads the player to grand adventures—and adventures that feel uniquely personal. While both Sorcery! and Heaven’s Vault are meatier Inkle experiences, the bite-sized nature of 80 Days works to its advantage, inviting the player to run through it again and again and again.
Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Last but certainly not least, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is arguably the game of this generation. I’m not (officially) putting that label on it, nor would I even say it’s my favorite game of this generation. But the impact it had is immeasurable, both in terms of elevating big-budget storytelling and in rethinking how open-world games should work.
At the start of this generation, Ubisoft’s “formula” dominated the genre. Epitomized by Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate, games were packed full of meaningless collectibles and side activities. Maps got more and more crowded with hundreds of tiny icons. There was a lot to do, but very little of it mattered.
The Witcher 3 made its side content—well, most of it—matter. Some of its side missions are even more popular than the main storyline, with Geralt settling local disputes, attending a masquerade, or simply enjoying a drink with old friends. It blurred the line between “essential” and “extraneous” like no game before, with the consequences from seemingly insignificant side missions popping up in the main story hours later.
And then there was Geralt. Video games are fond of a blank slate, but The Witcher 3 is proof that a strongly-defined character can be a boon to roleplaying. Defining “your” version of Geralt, whether compassionate or callous (or both), was a large part of The Witcher 3’s appeal, and CD Projekt did it without resorting to artificial meters or a more traditional video game solution. They wrote a complex character with conflicting motivations for the player to prioritize.
The Witcher 3 had other ripple effects, of course. The “?” map icon has become pervasive, a hallmark of games that want to imitate The Witcher 3, from Assassin’s Creed to Ghost of Tsushima. But it’s the adventure itself that I remember, nearly five years since I left Geralt looking out over Corvo Bianco.