Finishing Breath of the Wild, I thought to myself that it’s probably one of my top favorite games ever. This, of course, prompted a bit of further reexamination. A favorites list is an inherently subjective and personal artifact, no matter what numbers one assigns to a thing in the attempt to give a more formal rating. It is also fairly mutable; my favorites list–especially if you get out to the fringes of a top ten or top twenty anything–changes relatively frequently.
So if Breath of the Wild is one of my top favorite games now, how do the others shake out?
In no particular order, my five favorite video games are currently…
I. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
A massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).
II. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The list changes a little bit, but not that much. This permanent ranking at the top of my games pile is part nostalgia and part a reflection on what a wonderful game Bethesda put out back in 2002. It’s buggy and a bit ugly around the edges, and its (unmodded) graphics certainly don’t live up to the test of time–but it was rewarding exploration and wild experimentation almost two decades ago, and it felt like a truly massive game world at the time. Plus, by focusing on a fairly small geographic footprint, a volcanic island in an inland sea, the game tended toward density over sheer openness. There could be a lot of wandering, sure, but over just about every rise and in just about every hollow would be something new and interesting. The realm of Morrowind was a truly weird place, with bizarre plants and animals, fungi towers, and an elaborate set of competing and overlapping cultural and political systems. The tension between a (racist, classist) native culture and (corrupt, domineering) imperial presence blurred the lines of right and wrong. Not that your character was ever bound by doing what was “right” so much as what said character could get away with…
III. Beyond Good and Evil
This was another game with a bizarre world to explore, with humanized animals and strange invasive aliens and bizarre native wildlife. It wasn’t truly “open-world,” I suppose, but there were massive hubs to explore and plenty of secrets to uncover. Like Breath of the Wild, this game employed a photography system, and photographing key objects was often essential to completion of mission objectives. It could also be used to take pictures of native fauna to pick up extra cash cataloging the remaining life forms on the planet. The combat system was typically light and breezy, though some of the boss fights–especially the final boss–tended toward the tedious. I truly appreciated the wonderful sense of empathy expressed by the main characters, as well as the portrayal of a wildly multicultural and welcoming world. That’s in addition to the conspiracy-theorizing, love-letter-to-freedom-of-expression, resistance-to-fascism themes of the game.
IV. Fable II
Another fairly open-world game–huge swaths of territory to explore in open hubs containing either cities or wilderness. The ease of combat and the easier ability to intermix magic, melee, or ranged attacks into a fight improve upon its predecessor, and the additional ability to pick a gender was a nice change (even though you’re still stuck being a pale Briton, despite the inclusion of people of various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the game). The third game offered further improvements to combat and the interplay between the three types of abilities, and its expansion of property acquisition and rise-to-the-throne plot were refreshing. Still, I think the second game represents the peak because of the Hero’s companions. Hammer, for instance, is just a fantastic video game character and always more clearly heroic than the protagonist, even if she is prone to anger and rash action. Once again, experimentation is another thing that can be valued about this game–experimenting with combat styles, experimenting with mercantile tactics, and experimenting with social interaction. Everything feels quite organic at first, a series of player actions and world/NPC reactions, although the simplicity of each of the main systems in the game quickly reduces them to something feeling transparently mechanical. This is probably the most troubled game on my list, and I think the ending in particular was disappointing, rushed, emotionally manipulative, and overly simplistic (why must it be one of those three wishes? I could think of other variants with better outcomes!).
V. Deus Ex
Writing up this list, I thought the fifth entry would be Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Sure, there are other games I like more than that; they’ll come first. But I was sure KOTOR would take the final spot. And then I got here, and I realized, Deus Ex came out three years before, it was in some ways a more experimental game, it certainly gave the player a lot of agency (probably more so than in KOTOR), and it dealt with moral choice in a far more mature way than the other game! Deus Ex may not be the better game, but I think I prefer it, if I’m being honest and not blinded by fanboy nostalgia. I think I talk about that game more–and recommend it to others more, even now. And Deus Ex‘s story was wild, taking the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and rebranding them as a twisted truth, all adding up to an awful dystopian future. The blocky character models and dark environments are definitely dated, but they also fit with the gritty and failing cyberpunk world explored in the game. KOTOR’s characters stuck with me more, but the Dentons’ story is a bizarre one that’s worth remembering too. Plus, there were multiple approaches through any situation; stealth, diplomacy, or a tech-based approach were often not just alternatives but often far superior to a straightforward combat option. The dense, shady urban environments in each level were lurid and rotten and packed with secrets to find. It was a weird game, and it was hard at first for me to get into, but it’s worth taking the time to unpack it. It’s a game that’ll eat at you a while after playing.
It is really hard to contain oneself to five favorite things. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Knights of the Old Republic for a worthy Star Wars story with a robust dialogue system, interesting companions, exotic environments, and a turn-based combat system that was simultaneously tactical and cinematic; Stardew Valley, for its seemingly simple farming simulator that also contains a dungeon-delving combat game, a community of quirky personalities, and a deeply rewarding cycle of daily tasks, all set to the most pleasantly peaceful music; Analogue: A Hate Story for being a visual novel with a good story, interesting themes, and a clever collapse of the fourth-wall through the nature of play, making it a visual novel that I actually wanted to play; Life Is Strange, for the emotional (and not just melodramatic) high school drama and weirdness and cool game mechanics; and Halo, for being the first FPS I loved as a youngster and for its derivative-yet-imaginative epic sci-fi setting. Oh, I guess that makes five runners-up, so this is secretly a top ten list, and you’ve just reached the end.