This year I reconnected with a childhood friend and dragged him back into PC gaming. I chaperoned him through a few recent games, some casual multiplayer things (Back 4 Blood, Chivalry 2) and stuff that rekindled what we loved in the '90s (MechWarrior 5, Streets of Rage 4). I imagine a lot of you have had this experience, too, as our hobby has only become more mainstream with each passing year.
Seeing PC gaming through a newcomer's eyes got me thinking: What's the best way to onramp someone to PC gaming today? Is it better to hand them homework and history, games that are at the heart of what makes PC gaming unique (whatever that means), or lighter stuff they'll enjoy instantaneously?
It's a surprisingly hard question. You're a board-certified representative of your hobby. They're an impressionable baby-gamer. Their joy is a malleable lump in your hands. You don't want to throw someone straight into Kerbal Space Program as their first PC game. Counterpoint: Actually, do hurl your naive friend into the deep end, let them struggle, then experience the earned joy of successfully launching a shuttle to the Mün.
Let's see if we can come up with a list of introductory games we all agree on. I'm sure that will go smoothly.
"Only The Classics"
- Wolfenstein 3D
- UFO: Enemy Unknown
- SimCity 2000
- Baldur's Gate 2
The thesis: Knowing PC gaming means knowing how it began
Drink your Ovaltine, kid. As editor-in-chief of the oldest publication about computer games, I'm supposed to tell you that appreciating the hobby means understanding its origins. Respect your elders, and all that.
So here, play some old games. Godspeed. Would I myself play these old games in 2021? Haha, no.
I don't think this approach to indoctrination would work on almost anyone. We respect the legacy of these games tremendously, as reflected in our most important PC games list. But the industry's tendency to remake old stuff ad perpetuum means that each of these genre-establishing classics is readily available in four or five modern forms, with conveniences like modern resolutions, UI, and mods.
It's the same reason that our Top 100 focuses on the best games right now: most people would rather play XCOM 2 than its 1994 ancestor.
This list doesn't cut it. It's homework. It's unseasoned primordial soup. Wouldn't most of us rather watch HBO's Succession than read King Lear?
Let's test that theory.
- Black Mesa
- Command & Conquer Remastered
- Mass Effect Legendary Edition
- Total War: Rome Remastered
- The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
Thesis: Old and improved
What could be better than the classics? Shiny classics. Even DaVincis need to be revarnished, right?
We've got platform-defining action and strategy games here, along with an Overwhelmingly Positive-rated remaster of a classic adventure game. Mass Effect feels like a safe, rich RPG to throw a newbie into, though math experts will note that technically it makes our five-game list into an eight-game one.
The real complication here is that The Nostalgia Problem still looms over some of these games. Our Total War experts would put several other, newer games in the series ahead of Rome. And I think C&C Remastered is meant to be played only by those who can recite every power chord in Red Alert's Hell March.
By putting what we were playing 10 or 20 years ago on a pedestal, we're not really giving someone a sense of the hobby as it exists today. Let's steer this recommendation list sharply into the present, shall we?
"All The Cool Kids Are Playing It"
- League of Legends
- GTA Online
Thesis: Millions of people can't be wrong, right?
PC gaming's just a big popularity contest. Fortnite's the most popular game in the most popular genre. LoL and CS:GO are competitive canon. Minecraft has been a formative gaming experience for tens of millions of kids. GTA5 still appears on retail sales charts, eight years later.
In this thought exercise we're now halfway through, I think we're assuming that the PC gaming-curious friend or acquaintance has a month or two to dig into the games we're sending them. But most of the popular games we've recommended are 'forever games,' hobbies unto themselves. It isn't a good sign that I don't know anyone who plays more than two of these concurrently!
Somehow we've got to capture the essence of what makes PC gaming special—let's see what happens if we double-down on PC exclusives.
"The Deep End"
- Crusader Kings 3
- Arma 3
- Half-Life: Alyx
- EVE Online
- Dwarf Fortress
Thesis: Splash! Congratulations, you're now drowning
Hell yeah. You wanted PC gaming? Well here it is, pal.
What's that? You don't understand how to wed dynasty members to non-vassal rulers in Crusader Kings 3 in order to extend your reign of Northern Ireland? You don't own a house that fits a $1,000 Steam VR setup? You don't know how to read topographical maps? Shame. Maybe this hobby isn't for you.
Honestly, I buy the argument that these are some of the games that represent the modern nucleus of hardcore PC gaming. For a certain friend, this is probably exactly what I'd want to show them. These are rich experiences that take unique advantage of the platform's processing power, of PC gaming's close proximity to vibrant internet communities, or of VR, which you could argue remains the most cutting edge form of PC gaming. In Dwarf Fortress, you have a story generator born out of ASCII that completely trusts the player to make their own fun. It doesn't get more PC than that.
Speaking of games developed by two-person teams, though… one corner we haven't paid a lot of attention to so far are indies. What happens if we try to introduce someone to PC gaming solely with great independent games?
"Give Me Independence or Give Me Death"
- Hollow Knight
- Disco Elysium
- Slay the Spire
- Return of the Obra Dinn
Thesis: Self-published games are less commercial, more creative
Huh. That's actually a nice list. These games counterbalance one another well, like a charcuterie board of olives and cheeses that "you probably haven't heard of." We've got a bonafide narrative-RPG masterpiece, the world's best-designed deckbuilder, a charming and difficult adventure-platformer, and an black-and-white, maritime insurance-adjuster mystery set in 1803.
But we're missing multiplayer here, aren't we. Smaller studios aren't historically great at making rich, always-on competitive games. And that seems like a pretty big omission in a time when, well, multiplayer games are incredibly popular and long-lived. How have we not gotten Apex Legends in here at this point, our highest-ranked multiplayer game from the Top 100?
What we actually want is an Infinity Gauntlet of gems plucked from each corner of the PC gaming universe.
- Modern classic: The Witcher 3
- Competitive multiplayer: Apex Legends
- Cozy co-op: Valheim
- Timeless classic: Ultimate Doom
- Wildcard: The Jackbox Party Pack 8
"Infinity Gauntlet", left-handed alternate edition
- Modern classic: Red Dead Redemption 2
- Competitive multiplayer: Dota 2
- Cozy co-op: Stardew Valley
- Timeless classic: Half-Life 2
- Wildcard: Papers, Please
Thesis: A congress of diverse, excellent games
If there's one thing I learned from reading laminated posters in public school cafeterias, it's that a balanced diet is key. In the previous recommendation lists, we over-specialized on concepts, creating recommendations that weren't especially harmonized.
These are distinct games that have nothing in common thematically. None of these games occupy the same genre. We've got longer games, shorter games, multiplayer games (but one is co-op), and some acknowledgement of PC gaming's history but not at the expense of having fun today. And at maximum, in Apex and Dota 2, we have one "skyscraper" game that has the potential to become its own year-plus sub-hobby.
I wanted to include The Jackbox Party Pack 8 on this list because it's some of the most fun you can have in your living room with other people playing a PC game, and it arguably showcases one of PC gaming's strengths as a device-agnostic platform.
I think it works OK.
On the internet we sign off articles with empty phrases like "Tell us what you think in the comments" just to end things neatly. But in this case I am genuinely asking you to hit me with your five-game list that you think would most successfully convert a non- or lapsed PC gamer to our hobby.