The best games of this generation

The end of a console generation is also the perfect time for a retrospective

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Baba is You

This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve written about Baba is You and it never gets easier. Baba is You is so simple to play, and yet incomprehensible otherwise. It’s a puzzle game where the rules are written directly into the environment, i.e. “BABA IS YOU.” You can push these blocks of text around though, rewriting the rules to find a solution.

For instance, given “ROCK IS PUSH” you might remove the “IS,” and thus render the rock insubstantial, opening the passage it previously blocked. Or you might change “BABA IS YOU” to “ROCK IS YOU,” and take control of the rock directly. The catch is that most of the rules are generally tucked into the corners, impervious to your manipulations. 

Figuring out what can and can’t be changed is key to solving each puzzle, and I’ve rarely had as many “Eureka!” moments as I did with Baba is You. I probably spent more time just staring at puzzles than I did interacting with them, trying to break down the chains of cause and effect in my head. It’s immensely satisfying—and if I’m honest, smarter than me. Nearly two years after release, I’m still plugging away at the last few puzzles.

The Talos Principle

Who would’ve guessed the team behind Serious Sam would put out one of the generation’s best puzzle games? Quite a departure, and yet Croteam’s take on Portal-style puzzling remains an incredible accomplishment. 

The Talos Principle is admittedly less focused than Portal, with puzzles spanning a dozen-odd different mechanics. You’ll redirect lasers to their proper receptacles, rewind time, place crates, use fans to boost into the air, and so on. It’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, and both quality and difficulty vary wildly. The Talos Principle makes good on most of these mechanics though, especially in the bonus “Star Puzzles,” which usually require breaking free from the rigid mainline puzzles and applying some outside-the-box thinking.

And like Portal, it’s impossible to talk about The Talos Principle without mentioning its story—even though the two are very different. Portal’s best moments were humorous. The Talos Principle is a solemn treatise on philosophy and myth, asking the player to engage with a pseudo-biblical story about creation and morality and autonomy. It’s a stunning science fiction wrapper for an already excellent puzzle game, and a great experience in virtual reality as well.

Hitman 2

Hitman 2 is arguably a very old type of game. What IO Interactive did with Agent 47 this generation is basically roll back a decade, pretend 2012’s action-packed Hitman: Absolution didn’t happen, and make a sequel to fan favorite Hitman: Blood Money instead.

It paid off. Both 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s follow-up are top-tier stealth games, with IO able to build larger and more elaborate environments than anything in Blood Money. Massive crowds, multiple buildings and vantage points, dozens (if not hundreds) of improvised weapons and costumes—there are endless possibilities for the resourceful hitman.

The level of detail means Hitman ends up feeling like an intricate puzzle box where the goal is the perfect murder. Hitman 2 seems fairly straightforward, but IO’s time-limited Elusive Targets and alternate objectives demonstrate a level of depth you’d never guess at your first time through. Its missions aren’t built to be played once. They exist to be poked and prodded, new (and unique) opportunities uncovered as the simulation reacts to your presence.

And while the premise is dark, the games are much less so. IO’s packed levels full of humor, both authored and implied. My favorite is still Agent 47 as P-Power, celebrity tattoo artist, growling “You need to keep still. I wouldn’t want to stab you by accident,” before doing just that. The consummate professional.

80 Days

“I have entered into the service of a new gentleman. It would seem he is a gambling man.” Inkle’s become one of my favorite developers this generation, but it’s 80 Days that I return to most often. A loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, it’s an adventure like no other, spanning all seven continents and dozens of cities.

Your goal is ostensibly to make it around the world within the titular time limit, but how—and even if—you do so is entirely in your control. Ride mechanical elephants through India, or fly high overhead in an airship. Bushwhack through South America, or take a steamship from Indonesia to Australia. Take the Transcontinental Railroad from San Francisco to New York and meet the infamous outlaw Jesse James.

And be sure to stop along the way! Check out the Exposition Universelle in Paris, join the circus in Yokohama, explore the ruins of Machu Picchu. 80 Days is still the foremost example of Inkle’s development philosophy, that making a lot of little choices leads the player to grand adventures—and adventures that feel uniquely personal. While both Sorcery! and Heaven’s Vault are meatier Inkle experiences, the bite-sized nature of 80 Days works to its advantage, inviting the player to run through it again and again and again. 

Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Last but certainly not least, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is arguably the game of this generation. I’m not (officially) putting that label on it, nor would I even say it’s my favorite game of this generation. But the impact it had is immeasurable, both in terms of elevating big-budget storytelling and in rethinking how open-world games should work.

At the start of this generation, Ubisoft’s “formula” dominated the genre. Epitomized by Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate, games were packed full of meaningless collectibles and side activities. Maps got more and more crowded with hundreds of tiny icons. There was a lot to do, but very little of it mattered.

The Witcher 3 made its side content—well, most of it—matter. Some of its side missions are even more popular than the main storyline, with Geralt settling local disputes, attending a masquerade, or simply enjoying a drink with old friends. It blurred the line between “essential” and “extraneous” like no game before, with the consequences from seemingly insignificant side missions popping up in the main story hours later.

And then there was Geralt. Video games are fond of a blank slate, but The Witcher 3 is proof that a strongly-defined character can be a boon to roleplaying. Defining “your” version of Geralt, whether compassionate or callous (or both), was a large part of The Witcher 3’s appeal, and CD Projekt did it without resorting to artificial meters or a more traditional video game solution. They wrote a complex character with conflicting motivations for the player to prioritize.

The Witcher 3 had other ripple effects, of course. The “?” map icon has become pervasive, a hallmark of games that want to imitate The Witcher 3, from Assassin’s Creed to Ghost of Tsushima. But it’s the adventure itself that I remember, nearly five years since I left Geralt looking out over Corvo Bianco.

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