16 Important Games: 2005-2013

As we tick off the last few big releases remaining before the full might of the eighth console generation crashes down upon us this fall, it is a good time to reflect back on what this most recent generation — arguably the longest ever — has brought us. Motion controls. Indie games so big they had a movie named after them. The rise of digital distribution and the bottoming out of the price floor. Social media integration. In-app purchases. Free-to-play. Freemium. Monetization. Metrics. Gamification. Monthly active users. A thousand other buzzwords, bywords, and blowhards claiming to have definitively solved how to create a a popular and profitable game. All told, it adds up to what is probably the most transformative period in the entire history of video games. So it’s been kind of a big deal, yeah?

Anyway, a few months back the new consoles were announced and people started bandying around lists and polls with titles like Best Games of the Generation, and I was struck by how poor a metric “best” is for actually defining a generation. Bioshock is a great game (at least the first 2 acts were), but at its heart it’s a very close sibling to System Shock 2, Doom 3, and other games that came before it. Ditto to Uncharted 2 – it may be well-written and play great but, short of popularizing shimmying across gutters as the new floating platforms, it did little to actually advance what a game can be.

So I decided to make my own list, a list not about which game was the most fun or had the best graphics or made the most money, but a list in which I try to call out the games that changed our perceptions the most, the games that we bring up in conversation years after their release, not because they were necessarily very good, but because they did something different. They’re not even the most influential games — some of them are on the list for attempting things that no one else has repeated since — but they are, in their own ways, the most interesting games of this generation, and for that I dare call them the most important.

So here they are, the 16 games that I think just may have been the most important games of the last 8 years:

  CoD4

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Opening with the big guns — quite literally — is CoD4. The last of the sensibly numbered Call of Duty games, Modern Warfare heralded a sweeping shift in the design of console first person shooters from couch-centric party games to online ways of life. Halo 2 had popularized the online console FPS three years earlier, but it had retained a strong offline core of 4 player co-op and competitive modes. CoD4 stripped out cooperative campaign modes to focus instead on a linear, tightly scripted campaign — another tenet which would soon become an industry standard — and moved the competitive focus to the online space, bringing in a whole range of RPG-esque levels and unlocks to promote continued play. In order to keep the game balanced, though, none of the experience or items gained in these modes are transferable to or from the offline game, which provides a limited selection of pre-made character classes in lieu of the full online experience. Later games in the series would toy with different ways of handling offline progression, but it was always a pale imitation of the rich RPG systems available online. Similar systems would soon find their way into almost all multiplayer shooters, encouraging replay but (in some cases) skewing the balance of such games further in the favor of more experienced players.

Oh yeah, and ‘stop and pop’ gameplay, ironsights aiming, regenerating health, and enemies that infinitely respawn until you pass an invisible line in the level? You can probably thank CoD4 for those, too.

  Wii Sports

Wii Sports

Wii Sports is motion controls. It did one thing, and didn’t do it especially well, and it’s still the most important example of the form. Without Wii Sports, the Wii would never have sold (many players, introduced to modern gaming by the Wii, didn’t buy any other games for the system — at least until Wii Fit came out). If the Wii hadn’t sold, we wouldn’t have the Playstation Move, the Kinect, Dance Central, Johann Sebastian Joust… So for popularizing an entire new form of gaming (regardless of how much you may love to hate it), Wii Sports earns its place on this list.

 

Grand Theft Auto 4

Despite sales of over 25 million copies, GTA4 has become a real punching bag for the gaming community. Protagonist Niko Bellic’s gentle demeanor in cutscenes doesn’t jive with the brutal actions he must perform as everyday gameplay, we argue, and the constant phone calls from your friends and lovers that entreat you to go with them to a bowling game or stand-up comedy show are a distraction when you’re five minutes into a high-speed pursuit. But these are summertime problems — and the calls only reveal the depth and variety of activities available to you, and the dissonance between character and gameplay only exists because the cutscenes are so well written and rendered (a problem that we would see again and again in this generation with games like Uncharted 2 and Bioshock Infinite).

After GTA: San Andreas, Rockstar took a look in the mirror and decided that they didn’t want to make the game where you could attack an aircraft carrier from a jetpack, then steal a fighter plane and crash it into a Vegas casino anymore. (Saints Row was also watching, and decided that it did want to be that game, thank you very much.) Instead, Rockstar set to work crafting a world more detailed than any seen in a video game before or since, with hours of custom-created television to watch in your virtual apartment, a motion-captured comedy set from Ricky Gervais, and pedestrians that realistically stumble and catch themselves as you smack the cappucinos from their hands while sprinting from the law. It may not have been the GTA4 you were hoping for, but with it Rockstar created a digital world of truly matchless depth and complexity (until this year’s release of GTA5, that is).

Rock Band

Rock Band

Whereas Activision-Blizzard never seemed to quite know how to handle competing series Guitar Hero, leading to entries like the 2010 Brütal Legend-esque barrel-scraper Warriors of Rock, Harmonix understood from the get-go that Rock Band was about one thing: the songs. Over 4,200 Rock Band-compatible songs were released over five years, more than half of which were official Harmonix-crafted tracks, and many a living room was filled with friends drunkenly belting out Bohemian Rhapsody at their TVs at one in the morning.

The Rock Band bubble eventually burst as people realized that nothing clutters up a living room like four or five plastic instruments, but for awhile there Harmonix was riding high churning out tracks for the greatest karaoke machine ever devised. The success of Rock Band was treating it like a service, providing a vast amount of post-release support via these track releases, many of which were backwards compatible with previous versions of the game. Who knows, perhaps Harmonix will tire of making Dance Central games one day, and we’ll see those vast stores of tracks carted out again for a new title on the next generation.

  FarmVille

FarmVille

Social gaming. Daily rewards. Metrics. Cross-game promotion. Monthly active users. FarmVille wasn’t the first game to be designed around these concepts, nor was it the most successful (CityVille eclipsed it in popularity barely a year after FarmVille’s 2009 release). It wasn’t even the first game of its type on Facebook, cribbing its design almost entirely from an existing Facebook game called Farm Town. It was, however, the first “social” game to become seriously popular in the mainstream world, garnering the kinds of numbers of players usually reserved for such casual classics as Solitaire and Bejeweled.

FarmVille’s design was always suspect, hinging upon strategies of social and material need, greed, and guilt — players rely upon one another to play the game consistently lest they cease to make progress and their crops fail. This worked well for the company, though, seeing them through a scandal involving partners in their digital currency system who actively scammed their users, a public falling out with Facebook, and an disastrous initial public offering of their stock. Years later, the popularity of the -Ville games seems to be fading as players tire of having their real-life schedules set by game designers. However, the laundry list of jargon and practices that they popularized seems to be here to stay.

Words With Friends

Words with Friends

Although Newtoy (now Zynga with Friends) could hardly be said to have come up with an original game design in this blatant Scrabble clone, they very successfully popularized the concept of asynchronous multiplayer. Although games like Civilization had included asynchronous play as an option for some years, Newtoy realized that it was the perfect solution for multiplayer in the rapidly growing smart phone market. Cell networks did not have the bandwidth to properly support real-time multiplayer of the kind popular on consoles (although that hasn’t stopped plenty of developers building those kinds of games), and besides, smart phone users don’t want to have to commit to playing a long, drawn out game in a single sitting (see Angry Birds, below). Splitting up a round into board game-style turns, allowing players to engage in multiple games at once, and providing text message-style alerts whenever they were prompted to move was the perfect solution for bringing competitive play to the new mobile gaming market.

League of Legends

League of Legends

I might be the least qualified person on the Internet to write about LoL — I can probably count the number of rounds I’ve played on my fingers — but it’s hard to deny the massive reach that this game has. Boasting over 32 million active players as of October 2012 and streamed competitive championships that draw over 8 million viewers, LoL is one of the biggest games — if not the biggest game – ever. Not bad for a game that is in many ways a direct update of a ten year old Warcraft 3 mod.

Central to that popularity is its excellent approach to the free-to-play strategy, one that compliments the core design of the game rather than subverting it. A rotating selection of free ‘champions’ is provided for players who are new to the game, perhaps trying it at their friend’s suggestion, keeping a stream of new content available to draw these unsold players back to LoL time and time again. But once they find a character they like enough to drop money on, a whole new world of premium skins and champions await. And once they’ve really got their teeth into you, you might well find yourself paying for access to the premium streams of championship games, as well… but I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, nowhere will you find any hint of pay-to-win items that interfere with the game’s finely-tuned tournament level balance. There’s some inexplicable CoD-esque leveling that gives experienced players a greater edge (which seems a bit much, considering the game’s already steep learning curve), but nowhere does finance take a front seat to design. Well, apart from the rumors / conspiracy theories that the newest characters are always purposefully overpowered before the first patch…

The other thing that League of Legends has proved is that a company really can manufacture its own sport, complete with trained commentators, hoards of cheering fans, and probably one or two groupies, as well. LoL always had the depth of design to support competitive play, but it wasn’t until Riot provided the infrastructure and funding (running their own tournaments, hiring commentators from retired pros, and providing high-quality professional streams of matches) that the game hit the level of professional popularity that it did. League of Legends seems to have played a large part in the rising popularity of Twitch and other streaming services, to the extent that both the Xbox One and PS4 will contain dedicated streaming hardware and direct Twitch integration. If that isn’t influential, I don’t know what is.

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain set itself a lofty goal from the start — a story game, more interactive cinema than visual novel, that has no fail state. Every choice you get wrong, every button press you mistime, these all add up to a conclusion tailored to your own playthrough of the game. While some of these options do branch the story quite significantly, most of them are sleight of hand — a line of dialogue may change, or a character’s model may appear different later on, but for the most part the player must be guided onwards towards the same progression of places and events, lest the amount of content required balloon exponentially beyond the game’s budget.

A gorgeous blockbuster with a massive budget, Heavy Rain is a technical masterpiece. Although light on traditional gameplay, the quick time events it does have are tense and slick, bolstered by the knowledge that failure will carry a consequence deeper than a Game Over screen. Some smart design even quells the mind-numbing Simon Says feel endemic to most QTEs; button prompts are effectively integrated into the motions and environment to not break immersion, and matching the required controller inputs to physical motions is effective and, in a few memorably instances, distressingly visceral.

This kind of no-fail story game brings with it a host of writing challenges. With its focus on story, the game’s characters and events must be rendered far more deeply and believably than in most other games. And as the player controls these characters, they must feel empowered with the agency to make the choices that they reasonably would within that world. This means that the writers must design scenarios in which players will, by and large, decide to do one of a limited selection of options, which the writer can then address with operable actions. The next challenge, though, is even harder, as the writer must then create realistic, satisfying results of those actions which nevertheless branch back towards a single throughline so as to constrain the amount of content required. By and large, Heavy Rain does this well. However, the few places where it falters and has characters act without the player’s impetus hurt it badly (and introduce some gaping plot holes).

These failings to properly support player agency, coupled with some strange stylistic choices, casting, and just plain bad writing have polarized opinion surrounding Heavy Rain. Later games would execute the formula more successfully — The Walking Dead, for instance, uses the same lack of fail states to force the player into some seriously gut-wrenching, guilt-inducing no-win situations. Despite its flaws, though, Heavy Rain should be remembered for being ambitious enough to prove that this style of interactive cinema is both very possible and extremely compelling.

Journey

Journey

The magnum opus of Chinese-born auteur designer Jenova Chen, Journey marks the conclusion of a four-game meditation on flow and emotions in game experiences. Starting with Cloud, a student project that Chen created while at the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab, and progressing through thatgamecompany’s releases of flOw, Flower, and Journey, Chen has examined concepts such as dreamily painting clouds across the sky, drifting through deep water, floating on the wind, and joyously hiking with a friend.

Chen’s games are intentionally light on danger and competition. They are of a new school of game design, in which the designer attempts to instill a particular emotion in a player, rather than simply wring their adrenal gland for everything it’s got. Tricking players into relaxing like this requires a fastidious amount of testing and attention to detail that extends far beyond painting some serene backgrounds and layering on a nice soundtrack. For instance, the player characters in Journey cannot collide with each other, which seems like an innocuous enough detail. According to Chen, though, the moment that they allowed players to collide, they would immediately start trying to trip each other up and block each other’s paths, breaking the spell and subverting all of the emotions that the game was intended to instill in them.

Although each of Chen’s games is a gorgeous work of art in its own right, they are most important for popularizing this style of peaceful, relaxed gameplay. While this genre had previously only contained niche games, Journey broke sales records on the Playstation Network download service the week of its release and went on to win a huge number of accolades, including the majority of the awards at the 2013 Game Developer’s Choice awards.

FTL

FTL: Faster Than Light

FTL is a great game. It’s a small, hardcore spaceship simulator tailor made for its audience by four guys who wanted to play a game just like it. Its beloved by its fans, and it cleaned house at the Independent Games Festival this year. Oh, and it won one of the few Game Developer’s Choice awards not taken by Journey this year, which is a pretty incredible win for indie games. But that’s not why it’s on this list.

FTL is on this list because it was completely paid for before its release — the developers didn’t need to sell a single copy to break even. After asking for a modest $10,000 on Kickstarter to help them polish up their game and pay their sound designer, Subset Games was pledged $200,542 by users who wanted to support their project. There is a lot of talk about what Kickstarter is going on right now, but I would argue that FTL is an example of what it should be: a passion project, nigh impossible to complete via normal funding means, given life by a community of fans eager to see what the creators would do with the money. Although we will see what happens with games and crowd-funding moving forward, FTL stands important as the first and most significant example of a Kickstarter success story in the games space.

(A brief post-script: Although I don’t want to get too bogged down in the correct way to run a Kickstarter, I find it interesting that the FTL Kickstarter offered nothing in the way of stretch goals or expensive, difficult to produce physical rewards. They were offering a game concept worthy of funding on its own, and for that they were able to spend all of the backer money towards making that game a reality, rather than frittering it away on fulfilling the Kickstarter.)

Amnesia

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

2010 was an interesting time for horror game fans. Previous years had not been kind to them — 2008′s Dead Space had been creepy, sure, but more in the sense that the things you shot were grosser looking then those in most games, and 2009′s Resident Evil 5 had cemented the long-running horror series permanently in the camp of schlocky (and racially insensitive) action. Although twisted psychological series Silent Hill hadn’t yet traded in its clunky controls and fog for a laser sight and underslung grenade launcher, even that series was showing its age as rehash after remake failed to bring anything new to the table.

Then came Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Very much a successor to Frictional Games’ previous Penumbra series, Amnesia had one major improvement over those games. Whereas Penumbra had featured much of the same dark, flashlight and physics-based corridor exploration that marks Amnesia, it had always stumbled on what I’ll call Mirror’s Edge Syndrome. To wit: a game that is not about combat will always be hurt by including combat. Picking up and physically dragging objects with the mouse might be fun and immersive when opening drawers and sticking keys in locks, but as soon as Penumbra asked you to wildly flail your pickax towards the wild dog trying to chew your leg off, the suspense was broken and what should have been horrifying became farcical.

Frictional Games did what they knew they had to. They removed all combat from Amnesia, forcing the player to hide from the Lovecraftian monstrosities that prowled after them in the dark. Oh, and they made the player afraid of the dark for good measure, so hiding will actually kill you in the long run. Essentially, they baked the concept of the rock and the hard place directly into the game mechanics, and by ensuring that the player never has any good options available to them, they created the most effective horror game to come out in years.

Horror isn’t about fighting for survival, no matter what Aliens 2 or Dead Space 3 might have you think. It’s about groping in the dark, scrabbling blindly at the door handle while something inevitable bears down upon you. Frictional knew this and, by reminding gamers what good horror is, opened the door for Slender and other true horror titles to find a wider audience than they might have otherwise.

Braid

Braid

Much of the discussion surrounding Braid seems to have shifted since its 2008 release date from the game itself to the outspoken opinions of its creator Jonathan Blow (the first two suggested Google searches for his name are ‘jonathan blow twitter’ and ‘jonathan blow is a douche’). Perhaps it doesn’t help that for awhile after its release, ‘indie game’ was almost synonymous with ‘puzzle platformer with a maudlin storyline’, and much of what made Braid special got lost under the sea of imitators that followed it.

But that’s just the thing — Braid came out before ‘indie game’ meant much of anything. In a way, its release on Xbox Live Arcade gave the term its modern meaning. Independent game development has existed for as long as video games have, but Braid was the first to really blow up, to be released on a major console and hit such a level of fame that even Soulja Boy Tell’em would post a video of himself playing it. That Mr Tell’em apparently missed the entire point of what Blow was trying to do with his game was immaterial — indie games had arrived.

Braid is an important game beyond the circumstances of its release, though. Its use of its mechanics as a metaphor for its plot, the ambiguity of its imagery (is it a game about a break-up or the invention of the atomic bomb?), and the way it subverts our ingrained expectations of how a game of its ilk should act heralded a generation of postmodern, self-aware game design and paved the way for games like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, which describes the creator’s experiences with hormone therapy via a series of Atari 2600-esque minigames, and the Fullbright Company’s charmingly anticlimactic Gone Home, which undermines the player’s expectations of horror and doom at every turn.

Angry Birds

Angry Birds

Of all the other games on this list, not one of them is as widely recognized as Angry Birds. (Sorry, Minecraft.) Angry Birds doesn’t just have theme parks (one in Finland and another opening in Malaysia in 2014), it has Chinese knock-offs of its theme parks. That, ladies and gentleman, is how you know you’ve arrived.

Angry Birds took the world by storm when it released on the burgeoning iPhone in late 2009. Angry Birds was the first game to really understand what mobile gamers wanted, and the market was ready for it, pumped as it was with first-time smartphone owners looking for something to do on their expensive new toys. Angry Birds’ formula of parcelling gameplay out in easily digestible 30-second snippets — each of which contains multiple goals for players of varying skill levels — is so perfectly tuned to the device that it has been copied wholesale by titles such as Cut the Rope, Where’s My Water, and many of the other most successful smartphone games. Most of these games follow the Angry Birds recipe down to the grid interface used to select levels, proving just how right Rovio got it with that first release. And while some of them spawned massive franchises in their own right, none of them reached quite the same level of notoriety as their feathered Finnish forefathers. A number of sequels and releases across every platform under the sun have ensured that the Angry Birds will continue catapulting to the forefront of global popular culture and, with their somewhat worrying film debut, to a cinema near you.

Minecraft

Minecraft

The inarguable breakout hit of this generation, Minecraft is the ultimate indie success story. Starting out as the side project of Swedish programmer Marcus Persson, Minecraft was a slow burn that grew into an unquenchable fire as word of it was passed around from forum to forum and dorm to dorm, propelling its lone developer to rock star status within the gaming community and making him a multimillionaire more than a year before the game was officially released. As of this writing, Minecraft’s various iterations have cumulatively sold more than 33 million copies worldwide, rendering it one of the most successful games of all time.

But Minecraft’s success is just a symptom of why it is one of the most important games of this generation. Rather, the genius of Minecraft lies in the core of its design: a rich, procedural world that encourages exploration without concrete objectives; a blocky, easily manipulable sandbox that brings to mind the encouraging tactility of a Lego set; a deep yet almost mystically obtuse system of crafting and progression; the ability to discover all of this, warts and all, with friends. Diving into this strange new land was an intoxicating proposition that had everyday technophobes running private servers to host worlds to explore with their friends. In a time when even solitaire games have focus tested, finely tuned tutorials to ease players into their mechanics, Minecraft’s famous lack of instruction actually provided much of its charm. The inscrutability of its deeper systems fostered a sense of community as players swapped tips and helped to build instructional wikis on the Internet, recalling for many players the bygone days of sharing solutions and wide-eyed rumors regarding the latest Japanese RPG or graphical adventure game in the schoolyard. When the developers finally did introduce a tutorial in the form of a series of instructional achievements, its content barely scratched the surface of the game’s systems — to explain any more would be to suck the mystery from the game.

The proliferation of other open-world, block-smashing exploration games like Terraria is a testament of the strength of the Minecraft concept, but no set of new features managed to improve on the purity of the original recipe. Minecraft was simple enough that it could become more than a game — it was a creative platform for 3D artists, a magical new world for children, a hangout spot for friends. Minecraft does not judge you for how you spend your time in its angular playground. It is merely content to provide you the tools to make your mark on its world and just enough enough resistance to make that agency feel hard won.

As if its position on this list needed any further cementing, Minecraft was also the first high-profile example of selling ‘early access’ to a game in order to fund its development. Now a commonplace practice implemented as part of Valve’s Steam Greenlight initiative and included in a large number of Kickstarters, Minecraft predated each of these systems by several years. The proposition that first adopters could play the game early, pay a discounted price, see its features grow over time, enjoy their new ‘charitable’ position as a patron of the arts, and maybe even have their feedback influence the game’s development was a quintuple punch that did much to spur Minecraft’s early growth from message board curiosity to indie phenomenon.

Minecraft is a game equally popular with men and women, hacker nerds and pre-K children. It has whole Youtube channels dedicated to showing videos of people playing it, and entirely separate channels showing off artistic creations and feats of engineering created within it. It introduced the world to a bold new method of selling games, rode the entrepreneurial indie spirit better than any other title, and popularized a whole new genre of gameplay. Minecraft may not be the most important title of this generation, but it certainly encapsulates the zeitgeist better than any other title.

Portal

Portal

“This was a triumph.” The opening lines of Still Alive, Jonathan Coulton’s infectious folk-pop singalong, spoke for the millions of Portal’s players as the song kicked in over the game’s credits. It was almost undeniable — the game was, on every front, a triumph.

The story of how Portal got made is almost as legendary as the game itself: a group of students at DigiPen Institute of Technology (working under the tellingly unprofessional moniker of Nuclear Monkey Software) put together a little game called Narbacular Drop, in which the player could link two points in space by placing down a pair of multicolored portals. Gabe Newell, CEO of gaming community darling Valve Corporation, immediately offered the group jobs at his company, one of the highest profile developers in the industry. Two years later, they released Portal as a pack-in with The Orange Box, a compilation release designed to highlight the newest entries in Valve’s popular Half-Life and Team Fortress franchises. All three games became extremely popular — Team Fortress 2, with its innovative and constantly evolving economy, was on the shortlist of games to be included in this article — but it was Portal that went on to become the fan favorite game of the decade. If you need proof, just walk into any room full of gamers, hum the first bar of “Still Alive”, and see what happens.

Portal was accessible for all the right reasons. It required very little pre-existing knowledge of games or how to play them, focused entirely on one mechanic that grew deeper over time, could be beaten in an evening, and delivered one of the few legitimately funny scripts in games. Erik Wolpaw’s writing was wickedly funny without ever crossing into vulgarity or mean-spiritedness, making Portal a deeply enjoyable proposition for players of all ages, genders, and walks of life. It gave what is on the outset one of the most purposefully lifeless and artificial settings for a game (a series of white-walled scientific ‘tests’) and gave them more personality than almost any other game of the generation. Importantly, Portal also never overstayed its welcome — the story arc ran through its entirety in a single sitting, a deeply satisfying player experience of a kind that is only recently being repeated with bite-sized episodic releases such as in Telltale’s Walking Dead adventure series.

From a design side, Portal was essentially one giant, subtle tutorial; it explored every permutation of its concept without ever introducing too much at once or asking players to juggle a wholly new or unrelated mechanic (a failing that would later be one of the greatest points of criticism against its sequel). When it had plumbed the depths of the portaling mechanic, it raised the stakes with a brief, cathartic boss fight, and then the game was over. Portal is both one of the greatest examples of teaching players new mechanics and at ending on a high point. Like Braid, it made sure to leave no use of its mechanic unexplored. Unlike Braid, it made sure to wrap itself up as soon as it had had its say. And like Steve Jobs revealing the next great iDevice, Valve couldn’t help but add just ‘one more thing,’ as the credits provided one more twist in the tale and gave players their ringtone for the next decade courtesy of Mr Coulton.

Joust

Johann Sebastian Joust

Almost undoubtedly the least-known entry on this list, J.S. Joust may one day turn out to have been the most important of all. The tail end of this generation has seen a rise in the popularity in ‘nonstandard’ digital games: alternate reality games, motion-based party games, and local multiplayer experiences (which, sad to say, actually became something of a rarity for much of this generation of Xbox Live domination and layered, Call of Duty-style online entertainment). This movement has coincided with the resurgence in popularity of board and physical gaming, which had been growing slowly in mainland Europe over the last decade before spiking back into relevance in the United States in just the last few years. J.S. Joust represents a certain vision of the future of gaming, a style of gaming in which the enervating joys of physical gaming are supplemented with the technological and computational capabilities of digital gaming, all in the name of enjoying yourself with friends and strangers in the real world.

The creation of American designer Douglas Wilson and Danish games collective Die Gute Fabrik, J.S. Joust is deceptively simple twist on a folk classic. Players must each hold an object of value — an egg on a spoon in bygone days, now a luminescent Playstation Move controller — and attempt to keep it as steady as possible, while attempting to swipe at and disrupt the hands of their opponents. If a player’s controller is moved too fast by a colliding palm or an ill-advised pivot of the torso, they lose. A simple concept made genius by one fact — the whole thing is set to music from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the tempo of which will sometimes shift wildly between a deep, glacial slowness and a high-pitched, Benny Hill-esque hyperspeed. How sensitive the controllers are to movement depends entirely on the speed of the soundtrack, adding an element reminiscent of musical chairs as players snap between states: one moment circling each tentatively other with arms held statue still; the next, making mad dashes forwards, one arm waving wildly, the other desperately trying to keep their controller out of their opponent’s reach. A game of Joust becomes a dance of light, sound, and kineticism, a jilting waltz of wide, white grins lit by multicolored globes.

The game of Egg Joust was perfectly functional when gravity was the only judge and a splattered yolk a player’s badge of defeat. By handing off rules arbitration to a digital observer, though, Joust is able to become something more; a musical free-for-all based on rules that are simultaneously incredibly easy to comprehend and yet far too complex for a human arbitrator to ever judge fairly in real time. J.S. Joust is a pioneer game, an ambassador for a bold new type of gaming that I can only hope grows in prevalence and popularity during the next generation.

There you have it, 16 of what I personally consider to be the most important games of this generation. Have your own ideas? Go ahead and share them in the comments! Or if you were just reading this to keep from having to do any work, why not kill some more time by downloading Asterogue, the excellent and free action-roguelike I co-developed for iOS and Android? (Did I mention it’s free?)

All images copyright their respective owners.

Jon Gill

Jon Gill is a Seattle-based ex-pat with a love for elegant game design and dark humor. By day he codes augmented reality games; by night he designs board games as half of Ruddy Games.