Video games are a medium I have serious apprehensions about. As evidenced in my archive, there was a time where I spent a lot of money to critique acclaimed games and ended up so disappointed by a so many of them, especially The Last of Us, that I eventually decided that game criticism isn’t for me. Too often it glorifies brutality, sexualizes women, villainizes religion, normalizes theft… And yet, I can’t shake my fascination with this medium, and that’s partly because it was essential to my childhood in more than one way.
Growing up, my siblings and I played a computer game called 3D Movie Maker through which I made what was technically my first movie, so video games are actually essential to my interest in film. The main appeal of video games is escapism, and although I’ve played grittier action games in the past, I now gravitate towards cartoony and stylized titles, mostly ones where the common enemies aren’t humans. I especially enjoy the puzzle-like nature of video games, from figuring out the level design to overcoming actual brain-teasing puzzles (though I do resort to walkthroughs when I’m desperate).
3D Movie Maker, however, is but an honorable mention preceding a list of the top five games that make me happy that this medium exists, whether due to their stories, their escapist value, and/or their artistic merit (heck, I think referring to the medium as “games” can sometimes be reductive, but I don’t know a better word for it other than “virtual ventures”), with my thoughts on each summed up in order of release.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (1998) – Ocarina of Time is one of the most influential video games ever made, both to the industry and to my taste in games. It took me a decade to beat, and replaying it now is like the experience of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz combined into one action-adventure that I can actually go on, resulting in the epitome of nostalgia for me. It’s not free from problems I normally have with the game industry; it allows consequence-free theft and vandalization, which undermines the fact that we’re supposed to be the good guy (though I may be taking the game-y logic surrounding it too seriously), and features a few in-your-face risque, if minor, characters as well as pagan mythopia. Not to mention, one of its creepier levels becomes horrifying to think about with its implications. Nonetheless, bracetting the more questionable elements, it sports the perfect balance between freedom and linearity, wondrous world-building, lovable characters, a grandiose atmosphere, and a storybook simplicity to its storytelling that still gives me chills. It’s still a blast to this day.
PORTAL (2007) – Portal and its lone sequel are what gave me a taste for puzzle games, and I have yet to find another puzzle game as memorable as this; if it can be considered a first-person shooter, it’s one of the least violent. This first one is a head-scratcher but still pretty short on first playthrough, is good for speedruns, and features a dark sense of humor (including one particularly morbid incident where we’re forced to “euthanize” an inanimate object in a furnace, which very subtle evidence may suggest is more problematic than it seems), an eerily isolating atmosphere, and an unforgettable antagonistic A.I. who acts as a metaphor for the idolization of technology; every time an automated checkout counter with a synthetic female voice thanks me, I still retort, “Thank you, GLaDOS.” Portal 2 expands upon Portal in bigger and funnier ways, but it’s also both not as critical about GLaDOS’s godlike role and a bit more mean spirited. Because of that, I prefer the first Portal.
ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST (2015) – On an artistic level, Ori and the Blind Forest is the most beautiful game I’ve ever played, sporting both side-scrolling environments so gorgeous that some of them made me tear up the first time I saw them and a sublime musical score. Unfortunately, it’s also rooted in a yin-yang worldview where there’s no pure force of good or evil, even spiritual, and the dark and light in nature must balance each other out for the titular forest’s harmony, so I have apprehensions about it on that level. Nonetheless, its story manages to move me playthrough after playthrough; although we as the titular forest spirit Ori battle many enemies on our mission to restore light to the forest, what has the final say is not a violent confrontation but familial love and empathy. It may tie into the yin-yang philosophy, but it is powerful in its own right.
KING’S QUEST (2015) – King’s Quest is one emotional rollercoaster, at once hilariously silly and tear-jerkingly touching. I admit that I had to look at walkthroughs throughout, and that’s because I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time stuck on puzzles. Made up of five separate purchasable chapters (the first one is free on Steam), the story has deliberate parallels to The Princess Bride, from the gameplay sections being framed as a story being told by a grandfather (of his younger days in this case) to a duel of wits with Wallace Shawn, and the middle chapters each have their own flairs: Chapter 2 is a survival game (whose survival elements turn out to be inconsequential), Chapter 3 is a dating simulator (which is consequential), and Chapter 4 is a puzzle chamber game. None of the chapters are as diverse or funny as Chapter 1, but the characters stay engaging throughout the story, which celebrates largely nonviolent adventure but not at the expense of familial relationships. It’s one of the most poignant gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
EPISTORY – TYPING CHRONICLES (2016) – I haven’t played another RPG that takes this much advantage of PC controls. Sure, I played typing games when I was a kid, but those were educational; this turns typing into a combat mechanic as we destroy creepy crawlies by typing words that appear above their heads, unlocking powers that make such battles easier, depending on how quick our fingers are, along the way. The world it’s set in is made to look like it’s made of colored paper, and it looks gorgeous even on the low graphics setting my PC needs. A narration permeates the journey, which includes occasional snippets from the past of the protagonist who doesn’t remember who she is; this adds an intriguing mystery to the proceedings, and the twist reveal not only adds unexpected depth but also genuinely uplifts. Although it’s not a long game, able to be beaten in seven hours, it’s an absolute gem.