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One of the pleasant parts of writing about games is just meeting the people who share your weird career. I went to a media dinner at PAX East this year and had the chance to get to know some editors that I hadn't met before. The guy sitting next to me happened to be primarily a console gamer, but that actually ended up being a neat opportunity for us to have a kind of cultural exchange. I got to learn about the state of Kinect games and Halo, and he got to hear me explain the appeal of Arma, a game that inspired me to memorize the NATO alphabet.
I took his business card and emailed him a few of my favorite Arma videos by Dslyecxi and CHKilroy later that night, hoping they would give him a sense of the beautiful coordination that's possible in a systems-driven, moddable, massive-scale multiplayer game. A few days after PAX East, I got a wonderful reply—our conversation and the videos I'd passed along had inspired him to build his first PC in 15 years.
I love being a PC evangelist. With my colleague's note, though, came a tough question: What are the three PC-only games I missed in the last 15 years that I absolutely have to play?
Daunting, right? These are the games I recommended, pasted verbatim from our email exchange:
From: Evan Lahti [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, May 5, 2014 4:01 PM
To: James Videogames [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Subject: Re: ARMA WONDERS
Late follow-up here, but—whoa, how exciting! Let me know if you need a hand with the build. Happy to pitch in or mail along one of our PC building issues.
Glad to hear you're willing to dig through some of PC gaming's wondrous past. Give GOG.com a gander for most of that. Fallout 2 is a must; building a grounded, variously amoral character in that setting holds up well. Deus Ex demands a bit of modding to make comfortably modern, though there are some great guides out there. TLJ is a wonder.
But man, this is a dream question. It's the gaming editor's equivalent of being visited by an alien, then asked to provide the three products of humanity they're most proud of. The approach I've taken here is to suggest three games that are deeply representative of what there is to love about PC gaming as it exists right now . I don't know if I can say that these are absolutely, individually the best games ever made—and I remember you mentioning not being particularly interested in MOBAs, so I'll omit those—but as a group I think that these games form some good kindling for what'll hopefully be a passionate relationship with PC gaming going forward.
Play these games:
Civ is two things to me: the best board game in the world (that you can happen to play alone) and history , reverently presented in an elegant, entertaining form. The care with which Firaxis animates its tiny, tiled Earth and digital figurines does so much to make its subject matter vibrant. Beyond that, it's a wonderfully arranged set of rules that sets up meaningful decisions around how you develop your civilization. You have to zero-in on short-term and long-term goals while bumping up against the cultural, political, and territorial ambitions of the other civs in your world; it's one of the few experiences where I can drop a dozen-some hours into a game, lose, and enthusiastically start a new game the next second, certain in my new, improved plan to achieve a science victory.
My best advice, if you aren't big on history, would be to dig up a mod for whatever your favorite fandom might be—LOTR, Game of Thrones, The Elder Scrolls… Avatar: The Last Airbender? A weird amalgamation of Blizzard properties? My Little Pony? I don't know what you want. Perhaps your lifelong dream was to found a civilization dedicated to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Play as the Geth for all I care.
A lot of the publishing friction that used to exist for individual and small game creators has been removed over the past few years, and it's a trend that's invited more weird, thoughtful, emotional narrative and systems-driven games. Papers, Please is my favorite from the past year; Lucas Pope takes a depressing setting (a fictionalized stand-in for a post-USSR Europe) and an uncomfortable subject (poverty and totalitarianism) and molds it into dystopian Oregon Trail told through rubber stamps and passport photos.
You play an immigration checkpoint officer, reporting into work each day to check over documents for errors. Each person processed correctly earns you money that goes towards maintaining the survival of your family (expressed as an end-of-day score screen where you pay to heat your squalid apartment, for example), but there's only so much time in each day to earn this money, so there's a real pressure to analyze quickly. Without spoiling anything… the mundanity of all that is undercut by a series of moral decisions you have to make; in my review, I described it as “the intersection of efficiency and intrigue.” The need to focus on paperwork to detect forgeries while weighing your conscience and the need to collect your meager paycheck to support your family. The confluence of all that is brilliant. Another quote: “A paperwork sim might sound mundane, but spotting a mislabeled gender or a forged stamp produces real pride, and Papers, Please keeps boredom at bay by gradually introducing incentives for bending or breaking the rules.”
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat + the “CoP Complete” mod
Despite being our designated shooter guy, I made the mistake of waiting years to try STALKER. Pripyat is the third expansion, and the “Complete” mod dials up the production quality of the game's skyboxes, textures, and other assets to modern standards without altering the story or gameplay. Complete is what I'd recommend for a first playthrough, but feel free to give Misery a look if you're feeling especially masochistic.
Other than Arma, and with FEAR as a close second, the most memorable firefights I've had in video games have been in STALKER. Imagine fighting on open terrain, in the dark, with limited ammo, against an unknown number of bandits that are crawling around in some beat-up, abandoned factory. Pripyat prompts you to play with a ton of spontaneity, and that scrappy quality of its firefights distinguishes it from anything else in gaming. The closest approximation might be clearing out a dangerous, random bandit camp in Skyrim, but that's always felt more like an exercise in picking apart an outpost at my own pace rather than being forced to fight on the fly.
STALKER isn't afraid to leave itself unexplained, and you realize how rare the experience of encountering enemies with zero introduction to how they operate is in modern gaming. In other words, without the heavy-handed explanation and focus-tested tutorialization you'd get from many Western shooters. That doesn't mean STALKER is tough per se… I'd describe it more as a game that trusts you enough to feel around in its (haunted, radioactive) world with your arms extended, make mistakes, and learn through that experience. This approach to design is also part of the DNA of DayZ and Arma. Have fun fighting invisible radioactive monstrosities in swamps during a lightning storm!
Mechanically, too, STALKER mixes fidelity with playability in some nice ways; guns degrade and require specific types of ammunition, but every rifle and pistol feels as comfortable as a Call of Duty weapon.
FTL , the pinnacle of the current roguelike craze. I suppose it's out on iPad, too.
Skyrim + mods , most of which are single-click installs these days through Steam Workshop ( http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/browse/?appid=72850&browsesort=toprated )
Something like Skyrim Unbound is especially good for a second playthrough, as it makes how you enter the world selectable from the outset. You can cut the Dragonborn aspect of the game out completely—I wanted to play as a completely martial, magicless atheist, so this was especially helpful.
Editor-in-Chief, PC GAMER
From: James Videogames [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 7:01 AM
To: Evan Lahti
Subject: Re: ARMA WONDERS
Great catching dinner with you too, man. It's a rare treat to pick someone's brain who's deeply ensconced in granular PC gaming. I know folks who experiment with ArmA and EVE Online, etc. but no one who plays seriously. These videos are fascinating especially the half hour one. I don't necessarily know if I'm tempted to play now, but it's certainly reinforced my fascination.
Your selection of highlights did, however, inspire me to purchase components to build my very first PC since ye olde Packard Bell I had back in '97. Pretty excited about it to be honest. My question for you: What are the three PC-only games I missed in the last 15 years that I absolutely have to play? Archaic mechanics and aesthetics don't frighten me, so don't hold back. Fallout 2, The Longest Journey, and Deus Ex are already at the top of my list.
On Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 10:55 PM, Evan Lahti wrote:
Hey! Great having dinner with you. Here's a few Arma videos that'll give you a sense of why folks get into it:
Some gritty, tough, guerrilla-style PvP
A sizzle reel of moments
A longer video that shows a large-scale infantry battle with a bunch of new (but relatively experienced) players, basically like a training mission for recruits against AI