Imagine your only tool for decision-making was the dating app Tinder. Everything you did in a day would be left to a simple swipe left for no, swipe right for yes. Now imagine yourself as a medieval ruler in charge of the prosperity of thousands of other people. One simple swipe of your finger would decide who lives, who dies, what gets built, and when to go to war. This is the reality imagined in Reigns. As you might expect from that description, the basic interface is rather minimalist. This aesthetic matches its creative and quirky take on grand strategy gameplay, making it easily digestible and perfectly suited for mobile gamers.—AJ Moser
19. Small Radios, Big Televisions
Psychedelic puzzler Small Radios, Big Televisions isn’t anti-technology, although its ultimate message touches on the dangers mankind poses to the environment, and it holds a certain skepticism towards virtual reality. The technology it fetishizes is at once archaic and unreal and yet in a way is thriving today; its retro take on a VR system that uses analogue cassette tapes evokes the current indie rock tape subculture, the minimal synth revival and the constantly hyped virtual reality escapism that the game eventually criticizes. The puzzle elements are light and easily sussed out, but the psychedelic dreamscapes and slurry synthesizer washes of the in-game cassettes are almost enchanting in their fuzzy unreality—especially after you take magnets to them and degrade them to increasingly abstract states. (At times it looks like what happens when you plug a VHS camera into a television and then point that camera directly at the screen.) This is a thoroughly imperfect game, but one with insight, courage and a clear-cut sense of self, and one where the imperfections are a vital part of its genius.—Garrett Martin
Wander…long enough and you’ll also find interesting sub-plots that key you into new avenues of approach. The best one I found had to do with one woman asking another to infiltrate the same group of people you were trying to in order to save a magazine one of the targets owned. Dangling the prospect of over 200 people losing their jobs over her, the woman convinces her friend to risk her life. She then heads to a nearby bathroom to call her friend as she agonizes over what’s she’s been asked to do. These stories build that sense of place Hitman’s always been great at creating, and they make you want to continue exploring.—Suriel Vazquez
Like Limbo before it, Inside is a dark puzzle game set in a deadly and oppressive world. The boy you control will die suddenly and frequently in violently graphic ways, and the world he explores is almost entirely cast in shadow. Inside is a bit more defined than Limbo, though, replacing that game’s more nature-based fears with Orwellian overtones and a dystopia run by man, and then making your own character complicit in the same kind of mind control that’s ruined his town.—Garrett Martin
16. Fire Emblem Fates
Tragedy falls on both sides of this war no matter what you or your hero do. Friends and family die or permanently retreat with regularity. Fire Emblem is both an adorable game about cute anime kids becoming friends and lovers, and also one of the cruelest and most unforgiving virtual death marches you’ll ever play. Don’t hold all that death against Fates: it’s the game’s birthright.—Garrett Martin
15. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Uncharted 4’s best quieter moments are as memorable as any of its action set-pieces, which can be as elaborate and disorienting as anything in the superlative Uncharted 2. True, the quieter moments stand out because there are less of them—the parts where you jump, climb and shoot drag on far too long, as usual—but also because they’re done as well as games like this have ever done them. From Sam and Nathan Drake reestablishing trust after 15 years apart, to Nathan and Elena’s increasing boredom with domestic life, Uncharted 4 spends enough time fleshing out the human stakes to make you care about the shoot-outs and explosions.—Garrett Martin
14. Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV
Act IV is a preparation for the end. A little on the nose, I guess. And it’s by far the least spectacular of the bunch. It feels permeated with more realism than the previous three acts. While surreal moments and sardonic, fantastical conversations take place, there are no awe-inspiring or heartstopping moments that inspire reverence. Unlike the previous three acts, the narrative is characterized by a foreboding sense of inevitability followed by the mundane, dull ache of loss.
As we get older, we forget more than we expect, including what will come to feel like the most tangible details of those we most love. We will forget the ones we swore we would keep close to our hearts.
But we will remind others of them through our memorials, whether built, written, or lived.—Richard Clark
13. Civilization VI
Civilization VI is a game of tiny enormous changes. It’s a study in how to update existing systems without completely overhauling them, and it works as well as could ever be expected. Long-time fans will find plenty to recognize and appreciate, despite some of the surface-level changes. It’s only once you dig into the game’s guts that you see just how different, at its core, Civilization VI is from its predecessors.
Everything about this game is pushing players to be deliberate, to plan ahead, and to strategize. But short of that making the game less accessible to those who have never tried to lead their own digital civilization to cyber glory, it actually creates a beautiful transparency. When Civilization VI is at its finest, it’s like a grandfather clock clicking and whirring rhythmically as all its gears and dials click into place.—Patrick Lindsey
Oxenfree captures the vicissitudes of friendship, especially the heightened passions of teenage friendship. No matter how believable these characters and their relationships can be, though, you might find yourself wanting to get away from them altogether, especially early in the game. Even Alex, the character you control, can occasionally rankle with her petty reactions and annoying humor. In that way, Oxenfree recreates that sense of self-mortification that should be most acute during your teenaged years, and how we’re not always capable of saying what we want to say.—Garrett Martin
11. Hyper Light Drifter
The world of Hyper Light Drifter is a rotting corpse, and the lizard people or bear people or bird people of that world continue to dwell in the ruins of some kind of technologically advanced civilization. You, embodying the player character, are haunted by your own death, and you’re haunted by some kind of force that keeps this world in its state of decay. It is unclear whether progress in the game means finally killing the world or setting it free, and that ambivalence sticks with me even now.—Cameron Kunzelman