Syd Bolton

Ben and Andrew discuss gaming’s canon: Games you need to play to understand the history of the art

Ben and Andrew discuss gaming’s canon: Games you need to play to understand the history of the art

It’s impossible to play all the games you should.

It takes a day or two to catch up on the year’s best movies, as long as you don’t have to work and have the help of a good babysitter if you have kids, but games? It would take weeks, if not months, to play through the year’s best games. Video games devour time, and they have bottomless appetites for our most precious commodity.

But what games should you play to get a good sense of the art form, and the history behind it? If we were to create a list of games you can’t possibly miss, what would you put on it? Where would you start, if you had to explain why we all love this hobby so damned much?

I’m going to go super obvious and begin with Super Mario 64. It wasn’t the first game to be played in three dimensions, but it was one of the best games in the early days of 3D, and in many ways it gave us much of the vocabulary we still use when designing or playing 3D games.

To this day it remains accessible and fun, although it can also challenge the most hardcore players. I was watching someone stream the game on Twitch a few days ago, and after ten minutes or so I had to connect my N64 and play through it again, and it remained delightful, whimsical, and often beautiful.

Few games, even today, offer as many environments, while also putting those different areas to work to provide different experiences. You play the game, and that sense of fun, play, and exploration is something that’s lacking in many modern games, and it’s a big part of what makes Miyamoto’s games so beloved. I played a few levels of the latest Wii U Mario game at PAX Prime, and the company still has it, but Mario 64 is a modern classic. If I had to share one game to get people up to speed, that’s where you would start.

Andrew, quickly: What’s the first game that comes into your mind?

Andrew's pick

This is a bit of a weird pick for me, considering I don't like the game that much personally, but I think I'd go with Bioshock if I had to pick one game to bring people up to speed with gaming. For both good an bad reasons. 

Bioshock is the culmination of everything that is great and wrong with video gaming in the last thirty years. One one hand, it's an utterly brilliant game in many respects. The pacing and atmosphere are both nearly perfect. So this hypothetical person who is being caught up on the history of games would get to see a great deal of the advancements the medium has made.

On the other hand, Bioshock also shows off gaming's slavish devotion to formula and genre. It's a very ironic game because it's a slave to formula even as it mocks that formula. It attempts to subvert your expectations by winking at them, but the game pointing out that something is ridiculous doesn't change the fact that it's ridiculous.

It shows off our contempt for the status quo, while offering few ideas on how to solve that issue. It's ostensibly a game about ambition and morality… but really it's a game about level design, particle effects, and shooting things. Bioshock is a yardstick that shows us everything that's changed in gaming, and everything that hasn't yet, or can't.

When you first asked this question, the big struggle that was in my mind was: “do I go with a narrative game that's highly lauded for moving the medium forward? Or do I pick a game, like Super Mario 64, that's pure gameplay and represents the best of interactivity?

For your part, what would you focus on? Showing people the advancements in interactivity and gameplay? Or the advancements in narrative? What game do you think best represents that stance? Besides Super Mario 64.

Ben's pick

It's a tough call. The question isn't what one game to play, but what games should be on the list of titles you need to play to understand what games are, what they're doing, and where they're going. History is important, but my next pick is looking towards the future.

League of Legends is a free to play game that doesn't feel like it's cheating the player, it has its own vocabulary, culture, and history, and is leading the charge in making games a competitive, spectator sport. If Mario 64 and Bioshock focus on narrative, story, and what can be done in a single-player playground, League of Legends is one of the most interesting social games we have going.

It's a game built on many limitations, but by changing up the champions and making every death mean something in the match Riot has created, and might be perfecting, something that's close to chess.

It's easy to grasp, nearly impossible to master. It's a game with a giant playerbase, but it's hard to cover on a video game site like this one for a variety of reasons. It's changing much of how we think about games and gaming, and I don't think you can have an informed take on what's going on in gaming without at least having a passing knowledge of League of Legends.

There are other games that come close, and my first instinct was to say StarCraft, but League of Legends will likely end up being more important than strategy games that have come before it.

It blows my mind when people tell me they haven't sat down to try the game, just because it's such a big part of the current ecosystem, and points to so many trends in gaming that are either already here, or will be more important in the future. You don't have to be fluent in League of Legends, but I think you should at least know enough to nod in the right places during a conversation about the game.

So Andrew, what one game do people often ignore that you think is instrumental in understanding the industry?

Andrew's underappreciated pick

Dungeon and Fighter. Although I confess this is a symbolic pick, and the game play itself is of no particular significance. Dungeon and Fighter is a South Korean game and the #2 title in China right now, behind League of Legends. It's played by tens of millions of people, and I'd be willing to bet most gamers in the West have never heard of it before.

Discussions of video games are achingly tunnel-visioned. We very rarely discuss games that come from places in the world that aren't Europe, North America, Australia or Japan. More than half the world is being blocked out, and it impairs our ability to understand the way culture feeds into the creation of games.

You talked about understanding where the future of gaming is going, and it's clear that games from all over the world are going to play a large role going forward as development knowledge and technology proliferates. There are some wonderful things happening in South America, a budding mobile game industry in Africa, some neat games in India, and an entire half of the world that we ignore in South East Asia and China.

So if someone really wants to understand the art of video games and not just Western-video-games-plus-Japan, then the scope needs to widen drastically. We can't understand our own art until we've been able to look around the world and understand how everyone is doing it differently. To add a few really intelligent, beautiful games to the list from locales around the world, I'd go with the amazing Somewhere by India's Oleomingus, Under Ash from Syria, and Mount & Blade from Turkey.

What are some of your underrated picks? And more importantly, what are the obvious picks you think need to be in there? We've been a little bit too lazer focused so far, and I'd love it if you dropped a bomb of titles on us.

Ben bomb

Let's go through a list of games I think are mandatory and what they teach us, and then I'll turn it over for discussion. I think Metroid: Prime is one of the best put-together games I've seen when it comes to menus, world-building, and visuals. The game was created with a singular vision, and it achieves its goals so damn well.

I would argue Rock Band 2 as the apex of the rhythm game, and another title that used everything that video games can do to get its point across, and that's another game that does a great job as a social lubricant. You can take that game to a party today and still get a good group to play and enjoy themselves. It was the only video game I had at my wedding, in fact.

Can I drop a truth bomb? Suikoden 2 is one of the best RPGs ever created. The fact that it remains so hard to find is a crime. I think you can learn a ton about game design by playing through the history of Wario Ware games, and to see what you can accomplish in a second or two of game play.

I could go on and on… and on, and on. But I'll turn this one over to the readers. What games do people need to play, and maybe master, in order to have a good working knowledge of video games as a whole?

Image courtesy of Syd Bolton.