Uh huh, this list has Metal Gear Solid in it.
I’ve sometimes mentioned the snobbishness occasionally encountered by science fiction and fantasy. Yet that does decrease continually, at least in terms of spec-fic works in media with widely-accepted artistic validity. Games, however, are unfortunately far too often excluded from these favoured media. Entertainment’s of course every game’s main purpose, just as it’s debatably most works’ main purpose; this has no bearing on the medium’s ability to demonstrate artistic qualities, among them innovation and intelligence.
So, getting straight to it, some great games in the sci-fi and/or fantasy genre. Games which, besides being a lot of fun to play, are first-class works of speculative fiction too.
5: Final Fantasy VII universe.
Let’s start by getting Final Fantasy VII out of the way. This much-loved 90s RPG has become legendary – it most often appears at the top of lists like this one. And given its great influence historically, and the continued appeal of some aspects today, it does merit some mention in this article. That said, as a younger gamer for whom it lacks nostalgia value, I have to say a few aspects of it have aged awfully.
Final Fantasy VII has always been acclaimed for the vast complexity of its world and story. While by present standards its format’s a limited one, it still retains some of that sense of epic size. A setting of corrupt corporations, eco-terrorism, different peoples, varied places. An emotional tale which includes dramatic staples like fallen heroes and tragic heroines, touches on some modern themes such as mental health and environmentalism, and throws some mindbending twists in there too. But it becomes a bit of a mess, this sprawling story, admittedly. Plus the graphics can look unbelievably dated to us spoilt players of the present day. The first part of the game, in dark urban Midgar, I really did enjoy. But, after departing the city, well, there’s only so many blocky representations of forests I can cheerfully take.
Later spin-offs – Dirge of Cerberus, and Crisis Core – got me into the franchise. And I’d recommend these to the others who struggle with older technology. They allow this beloved universe to realise its full potential with their less old-fashioned graphics etc. Hopefully something the upcoming FF VII remake, to which I look forward, will also do.
4: Beyond: Two Souls.
This interactive drama’s as much movie as game in a sense. I refer to its focus less on action than on narrative, as well as to its extensive use of motion-capture. (Beyond: Two Souls shares a designer, and similarities in format, with the also-excellent – but not spec-fic – Heavy Rain.) Initially, Beyond: Two Souls‘ story can sound a bit on the naff side. To summarise, it consists of non-chronological scenes from the life of a girl psychically linked to a ghostly entity. The aforementioned danger of naffness aside, the concept develops in interesting ways, a tale told and acted thoughtfully.
Some missions are more engrossing that others are; personally I preferred the special-ops stuff, shutting down condensers, to that lengthy sojourn among the Navajo. And choices lack considerable impact until towards the end of the game; this is emphasised by the to-ing and fro-ing in time, letting us know our future in advance. But, overall, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty fine piece and a pretty unusual piece. (There’s also an extra element added by a two-player feature, which lets the second player take the part of the heroine’s entity.)
3: Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Cyberpunk, cyberpunk, cyberpunk. Did I mention the cyberpunkness of this one? Seriously, if Gibson novels were games, Deus Ex is what they’d be. Corporate intrigue, high-tech and low-life, neon-lit cities filled with hookers and hackers and cybernetically-enhanced people. And it’s not only Deus Ex‘s world-building which is worthy of praise, but also its innovative playing style. It mixes the RPG with the stealth-shooter, combining open-world sections with more linear stealth missions, and it is to a fair extent interactive. That free chip upgrade that seems too good to be true? Spoiler: it is, take it from me.
Granted, the main corporate-espionage storyline perhaps isn’t fully compelling until it comes together eventually (which, come to think of it, is a characteristic of a lot of Gibson novels too…). I’d also have liked to see more of my weighty final choice’s consequences. But these are quibbles beside Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s impressively-realised vision of a future impacted by advanced technology, and beside the originality of its gameplay style. I tried the previous Deus Ex games after this one; it left me keen for more. Sadly, I thought these two early 2000s games pretty primitive even for their time. Guess I’m going to have to wait for the next one, Mankind Divided, which looks from its trailers as if it won’t disappoint me.
2: The Last of Us.
As I start to describe The Last of Us – as a zombie-apocalypse tale, as a man’s reluctant redemption through a child’s love – I realise that this superb game doesn’t even have a particularly unique premise. What it has is storytelling and character development of a sophistication to which most works merely aspire. Though it might not have a wholly original premise, its detailed characters are indeed unique, depicted with real emotional intelligence. We become invested in the story, and are left truly torn as it concludes; we’ve longed for Joel to feel an affection for his charge, but when he does so he vindicates his earlier survival-conscious self as he risks far more than his own life.
In line with the story, the gameplay’s not showy, but is simply of solid quality. And the balance between stealth and shooter, with the scavenging for ammo etc, is so managed as to genuinely give a sense of some guy trying to stay alive in this harsh post-apocalyptic place. (Sometimes failing to stay alive. Prepare to see clickers tear your throat out, a lot.) The Last of Us stands as an example of what attention to narrative’s importance, and to craft, can achieve. It’s a game which affects you as a good novel can do; it’s what such a lot of games ought to be, what so few of them are.
(I’ve decided not to discuss both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead by Telltale Games in this article, given their – coincidental? – similarities of content and themes. But I’ll take this opportunity to recommend The Walking Dead series too.)
1: Metal Gear Solid franchise.
Metal Gear Solid, from Japanese designer Hideo Kojima, can occasionally have more violence – and can often have more blatant ‘look, boobs!’ sort of stuff – than some Western games would dare to include. MGS also has far more erudite discussion, far more politics and philosophy, than frankly any Western game would dare to include. Anime lovers, perhaps, will have some sense of the sort of mix I’m attempting to describe here. (I should stipulate that I’m talking MGS 1-4 in this article; MGS 5 does remain something I’m meaning to play, but I always preferred Solid Snake’s stories to the Big Boss prequels honestly, besides this latest instalment looking a tad Assassin’s Creed for my personal taste.)
MGS is set in a sci-fi alternate history, with mecha and cyborg ninjas and massive organisations which work behind the scenes, and tells a staggeringly complicated political story encompassing about half a century. (Some would call it over-complicated; a complaint that’s not completely unjustifiable, at least in terms of MGS 2‘s exceedingly lengthy sections of expository dialogue.) The simultaneous societal influences both on individuals and of individuals are one major theme throughout the franchise – there’s much mention of memes, in the word’s older sense. There’s also a lot of meditation on war; a subject games seldom address seriously, central as war is to many.
MGS shows continual self-awareness, with a whole lot of breaking-the-fourth-wall in there. So in MGS 2 the Colonel messes with the minds of both the player and the protagonist; I have a friend who actually fell for his instruction to turn off the console, no joke. In the (pretty cool) hack-and-slash spin-off Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the doctor on your team’s keen to chat with you about the psychological reasons for these hack-and-slash games’ popularity. MGS is also bursting with idiosyncrasies and Easter eggs and humour – from ketchup-based escapes, to those cardboard boxes.
Of course, I can’t close without some discussion of MGS‘s gameplay. It’s been claimed, with slight exaggeration, that this franchise invented the stealth game; certainly it popularised the genre almost singlehandedly. Its self-described tactical-espionage-action style – focused on avoiding rather than killing foes, on taking down even bosses through not strength but strategy – was a new idea at the time. MGS games are still excellent examples of this now-extensive genre. Unavoidably, the earlier games have dated to some degree (particularly the first one, though I’d still consider it a fine game, and this comes from somebody whose minimal patience with 90s technology you might have noticed already). But MGS 4, my favourite one, needs no allowances made for its age, despite even this one having come out half a decade ago. To those out there who haven’t got into the MSG games already, let me recommend this franchise wholeheartedly.