Pokémon Go may be the most effective video game ever at making people move their bodies, but my interest has always been more drawn to those games that move the soul. Allow me to advocate for them for a moment. Just as listening to Explosions in the Sky makes me want to grab the nearest person by the lapels and force them to listen, force them to share that space of beauty and light, so, too, there are games that redeem gaming, that transform a trivial pastime into something that must be experienced.
You see, I kind of resent the technologically impressive but emotionally vacant games such as the aforementioned Pokémon debacle, because I desperately need people to understand that video games are good. I don’t mean they’re good in that they’ll save the world; I don’t believe in saving the world. I don’t mean they’re good entertainment; our amusement may be the death of us in the end. I don’t even mean they’re well-made, technical achievements, outstanding human artifice — I leave that to the engineers and the overclockers.
Video games are art, like music or painting. Not every song or picture reaches into our cozy soiled caves and yanks us free to awe at the clear night sky. But some do. As Roger Scruton writes, “Art ennobles the human spirit, and presents us with a justifying vision of ourselves, as something higher than nature and apart from it.” And the same is true for games. Everyone who has played games since their youth and still plays them as an adult has these secret gems, these titles they go back to again and again because, amid the fun of the genre, they somehow go further and call to the soul’s profundity. This they accomplish through superb visuals, great music, and, of course, excellent storytelling.
Here are five video games and why they matter to me deeply. None of them involve capturing monsters of any sort. They are literary and transcendent and life-affirming and beautiful. They are an epic, a dystopia, an allegory, a science fiction, and a tragic romance:
1. Final Fantasy 6 (Square, 1994, Super Nintendo)
I first played this when I was thirteen and it blew my mind. It is hard to convey its perfection. This little Super Nintendo game is still held up by many as one of the greatest ever. It is an epic, the story of a great journey and its global ramifications. It is an outstanding technical achievement, squeezing everything possible out of the limited technology of its day, with stunningly beautiful and detailed pixel art (even as I’m writing this, it’s astonishing to realize that this full forty-hour adventure only takes up 3 MB of hard drive space). It also happens to be quite a fun game to play, if you can excuse the ancient (and now dying) turn-based battle mechanics.
Far more important than all of that is the Opera Scene. Anyone who has played this game knows exactly what I’m talking about; tears may begin to well. You have to understand, first of all, that Nobou Uematsu, the composer for most of the Final Fantasy games’ music, is a first-rate musical genius. And this was perhaps his greatest achievement. The opera scene raised games to a level one might argue they have never surpassed. For what is achieved here with such rudimentary tools, both visually and musically, one is for the first time forced to recognize that games are art. In the video below, don’t miss the fact that the characters actually sing so perfectly in their little synthesized voices that you can almost hear the lyrics. Electrifying.
2. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004, PC)
From the sublime to the sinister. If FF6 is an epic, Half-Life 2 is dystopian fiction. Rather than any one great moment (though there are many to choose from) it is the overall atmosphere of this game that staggered players on its first release. Never before had the helplessness, the oppression of living under a despotic tyranny felt so well-realized. Half-Life 2 is so good at putting you on edge in its first five minutes that for years I have not thought of HL2 as the video-game version of movies like Children of Men, but rather that the movies all aim at the game’s perfection.
Witness the totally creepy first five minutes of this masterpiece, which still looks fantastic (and is stupendous fun to play). Part of the emotional impact comes from the faces, which have probably never been surpassed for expressiveness and realism. There is a reason why HL2 is by critical consensus probably the best video game of all time, and certainly the best first-person shooter. “Wake up and smell the ashes.”
3. Valkyria Chronicles (SEGA, 2008, PS3/4 and PC)
This is the game on this list that I have played most recently, and it is in a way the least accessible. The first thing you have to get past is that it is unapologetically Japanese. It looks like an anime and the dialogue has the flavor of a direct translation. But this is also the game’s greatest strength.
You see, Valkyria Chronicles is a semi-fantastic allegory about World War II. You command a tank battalion and fight back against the evil Empire (guess who they represent). Though it focuses on the relationships between members of your squad and the love that binds them together, ultimately, WWII games are a dime a dozen. What makes VC unique is its treatment of the holocaust. After all, in a zillion games about World War II, none of them that I can think of actually deal with the Nazis’ greatest atrocities.
This one does. And because it is a modern Japanese commentary on a European phenomenon, it is excused to an extent from the most obvious and personal ruminations. On the contrary, VC approaches the terrible persecution of Jews and the concentration camps with a clear-eyed, almost naive humanity. It looks at the holocaust as a child, unable to fully comprehend but full of certainty that through comradeship and brotherhood, evil can be overcome.
A Japanese anime fairytale take on the holocaust. Only in games.
4. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational/2K, 2013, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360)
You know that weird sort of excitement that swelled up in your stomach the first time you saw The Matrix? You know how it was summoned by the perfect blend of astonishing production values, perfect art direction choices, adrenaline-filled action sequences, and a high-concept mind-bending plot that almost reaches the point of changing everything? That’s what it’s like to play Bioshock Infinite.
The third in a franchise known for its blend of historical and fantasy storytelling, Infinite takes you above the clouds instead of below the seas to a version of 1912 America in which (it turns out) everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong. As you sort out the story and take in the absolutely stunning vistas of Columbia, the city in the clouds, you eventually run into the time travel, the rips in space-time, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern references. The story is an absolute mindbender and manages to comment on Capitalism, Race, Religion as you electrocute your enemies and ride around huge set pieces on rails through the sky. Bioshock Infinite is exhilarating and leaves us pondering questions indefinitely the way only great Science Fiction can.
5. Transistor (Supergiant Games, 2014, PS4 and PC)
Transistor is actually also a science fiction, but the social commentary and the mind-bending plot pale in comparison to the best love story ever told in this medium. It turns out that the secret to good video game romance is “less is more.” Only one half of this relationship has a voice in the traditional sense, and the entire emotional weight of the game is supported by the actor’s performance. As the story progresses, expressed through a gorgeous Art Deco visual palette and the best game score in years, the feeling of “us against the world” mounts and mounts, building to a shocking-yet-inevitable conclusion that leaves you sitting speechless through the end credits. Like Final Fantasy 6, much is accomplished through little, and we are, for a moment, transported to a higher plane. A thin woman with a huge sword not only ceases to be trivial, it becomes part of a true work of art that we direct and inhabit, musical, visual, and tactile, a video game.