Deus Ex and Bioshock showed that it’s possible to take the first-person shooter and add character development, player agency and a well-written story. More recently, a new generation of talent has entered the industry, making games about social issues such as immigration in Papers, Please. If you’re looking for some grown-up games to play, here are T3’s top tips
The Last of Us Remastered
Uncharted developer Naughty Dog created an instant classic with The Last of Us on the PlayStation 3, but check out the PlayStation 4 version if possible. Not only is it a technical leap over the previous generation, with 1080p visuals and a 60 frames per presentation, but it also includes one of the best pieces of downloadable content ever made.
The Last of Us looks like many other third-person action games; you play a rugged man in a post-apocalyptic world who has to save a young girl from a zombie-like outbreak. It’s a great example of the genre though: the combat is brutal, the stealth sections are taut, and the opportunities for personal experimentation are plentiful.
But it’s the scripting, voice acting and plot twists that truly elevate The Last of Us above all other games in this genre. To explain more would spoil the story, but Naughty Dog’s depiction of the young female character of Ellie is quietly revolutionary. In particular, the Left Behind DLC tackles the issues of teenage and female relationships in an incredibly affecting way--topics which are sadly all too rare in videogames.
Platform: PlayStation 4
The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series
Telltale Games produced a number of well-received adventure games, including sequels to revered LucasArts classics such as Sam & Max and Monkey Island, but it wasn’t until it secured the rights to Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic book series that it really found its groove.
The game takes place in the same world as the comic book, but most of the characters are new. You play Lee Everett, a teacher who was convicted of murder just before a zombie outbreak. He rescues a young girl named Clementine who he takes under his wing while trying to stay alive, and it’s this relationship that forms the game’s main emotional hook. However, you also have to decide how you interact with the other adult characters, many of whom have questionable motives of their own.
The first season of The Walking Dead is a brilliant example of storytelling and character development, with player choice influencing the outcome of every episode. If you play through the entire season, these choices start to stack up, and whatever your decisions, the ending will likely reduce you to tears.
Formats: PlayStation 4, Android, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Ouya, Mac OS
Valve has created genre-defining classics such as Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead and DOTA 2, but even in such esteemed company, Portal 2 stands as its best and most grown up game.
On a technical level, Portal 2 is perfection. Every puzzle has been tested to within an inch of its life--challenges that initially seem impossible reveal themselves thanks to subtle signals, allowing you to complete them and still feel like a genius. Even more impressive is that it works as well in the two-player co-op game as it does in the single-player story.
But it’s the incredible writing and pitch-perfect voice acting that really elevate Portal 2 as a grown-up game. Ellen McLain was so good at playing a computer in the Portal games that she was asked to do it again by Guillermo Del Toro in Pacific Rim. She was joined in Portal 2 by Stephen Merchant as Wheatley and recent Oscar-winner J. K. Simmons as Cave Johnson. Merchant may have complained about the process of lending his voice to the game, but he’s undoubtedly the best piece of casting the video games world has ever seen.
Portal 2 is a game that couldn’t really be improved by better technology--it’s a perfect piece of game design that should be experienced by everyone.
Format: Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Many games are described as “unique” by their creators, but they’re usually a new take on a well-worn genre--few are truly ever unique. Papers, Please is one exception--there really is no other game in the “immigration inspector” genre.
You play an immigration inspector in the fictitious country of Arstotzka in the year 1982. There are many different elements in play; you have to inspect each applicant to ensure they’re not a terrorist, be judged on your day’s performance, and then spend your meagre earnings on covering living costs for you and your family. However, there are moral choices to make--should you accept bribes or let in members of an immigrant’s family who might not have the correct paperwork?
Papers, Please is a game that challenges the social issues around immigration, your own morals around security and family, and your ability to deal with menial, repetitive, but vitally important tasks. Presented in a basic 8-bit graphical style, it’s a divisive game. Some critics loved the atmosphere and originality of the premise, whereas others found it boring and repetitive. Find out for yourself if it’s for you by checking out the many videos on YouTube.
Formats: iOS, PlayStation Vita, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac OS
Before Deus Ex was released in the year 2000, most first-person shooters didn’t even have a story, let alone one as richly detailed and complex as this one. Deus Ex was a game that combined multiple genres with graceful ease; it was a first-person shooter, a stealth game, a role-playing game, and a narrative-rich adventure all-in-one.
You play as an Anti-Terrorist Coalition agent called JC Denton, a human with nanotech-augmented upgrades. You can upgrade this technology as you progress, allowing you to choose how to play the game through weapon abilities, stealth and hacking abilities and general physical improvements. The game is also based around heavy interaction with non-playable characters from whom you learn about the terrorist conspiracy at play by charming information out of them.
The scale and ambition of Deus Ex was extraordinary for the time, and while it looks dated by today’s standards, it’s still better than the subsequent games in the series.
Format: OS X, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 (PSN)
Developer thatgamecompany had experimented with beautiful, emotionally-driven games with flOw and Flower, both of which are well worth checking out. But it was Journey that really delivered on its early promise with a novel, soulful and incredibly memorable experience.
Journey is a third-person action-adventure game where you play a robed figure in a vast desert. You quickly realise you have to travel towards a vast mountain in the distance, and you can pick up pieces of fabric in the world which lengthens your scarf and allows you to float through the air for long distances. Floating and sand-surfing can be combined, making it enjoyable to just explore the world.
One of the best features of Journey is that you can play it in co-op. If you choose to allow it, other people will come into your world, but you never know their name, and you can only communicate with them through a musical chime. It sounds strange, but it makes for a joyous multiplayer experience, far removed from the noisy, shouty experience of most online games. Journey is also punctuated by some incredible moments and scenery changes which we won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not all about sand. It’s a short experience, but it’s one of the very best games of the last five years.
Formats: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
The genius of Bioshock creator Ken Levine is that he’s able to combine incredibly deep and complex themes with satisfying shooter gameplay. Bioshock is a game that’s clearly made for a mass audience--it’s a first person shooter with gorgeous graphics, big guns and huge enemies to battle--but it’s one that’s packed with smart literary references, deep philosophy and genuinely troubling moral choices.
It’s opening, whereby you crash land and discover an Art Deco-themed underwater city, is one of the greatest first hour’s in video game history, and it only gets better from there. The world is dripping with detail and back story in the form of audio logs and visual cues, which turns a relatively far-fetched setup--a twisted genius builds an underwater city--into a plausible and ultimately tragic tale.
Bioshock also offers player choice (you can save the young girls or “harvest” them for greater powers), the iconic and fearsome Big Daddies, and one of the most memorable plot twists in the history of gaming.
Format: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, OS X, OnLive, iOS
This War of Mine
Call of Duty deals with war in a bombastic, Hollywood-friendly manner and is one of the most successful entertainment properties of the last decade as a result. This War of Mine is the complete opposite--it focusses instead on the horrific civilian experiences of combat, and just trying to stay alive during a time of war.
It’s your job as the player to keep a group of survivors alive by using the materials they have available. By gathering up supplies, making tools, and trading, you can upgrade your shelter, cook food and heal survivors. You can’t go out during the day because of sniper fire, but when night falls you can go outside, make friends with other survivors, or kill them to steal their supplies.
Inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the 90s, This War of Mine is a particularly bleak experience. However, it gives mature players a chance to experience something thankfully most will never have to in real life, and it’s a compelling game in its own right.
Formats: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS
“Are video games art?” It’s a question that’s been asked so often by video game writers and academics that it’s become a cliche, but if any game were to appear in the Tate Modern, then Limbo would surely be it.
The game’s black and white visuals render a starkly beautiful world--one where the life of a young boy is usually only seconds away from being ended in a horrific manner. Somehow, seeing a boy impaled on a giant spider’s leg or mutilated in some whirling machinery is all the more gruesome when viewed in monochrome. Thankfully, you never have to replay much of the game when you die.
Limbo is notable for its ambiguous nature--as the name suggests, it has a dream-like quality, and the story is open to interpretation. At the beginning, you appear to be saving your sister, but nothing is really ever explained, and the ending is vague. Luckily, the platforming and puzzles are fantastic enough to pull you through the approximately four-hour running time.
Format: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, SteamOS, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android, OnLive
One of the best films about video games is Indie Game: The Movie, which follows four small developers on the journey to releasing their games. The most memorable of these devs is Phil Fish, a man who spends five years of his life apparently going mad trying to make a platforming game called Fez.
Thankfully, he persevered. There are loads of retro-looking side-scrolling platformers out there, but Fez takes those classic Nintendo and Sega games and does something novel with them. The twist, quite literally, is that you can spin the world on four axes, revealing new ways to tackle each level through each viewpoint. You need to use this technique to reach new areas and solve puzzles which can be a lot to process at first, but it soon becomes second-nature, and you’ll find yourself jumping Fez into mid-air, then spinning the world around to catch him on a previously-unseen ledge before he lands.
Some of the puzzles are way too difficult in Fez, and the game’s map system is needlessly confusing. However, there’s nothing else like it out there, and it’s the first platformer since the equally-excellent Braid added time manipulation to the genre. The real shame is that Fish couldn’t take the stress another time around, and cancelled Fez 2 halfway through development.
Format: Xbox 360, Windows, Linux, OS X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita