Want to build worlds, become a crime kingpin, get lost in space, or enter the afterlife? Then our countdown of the 50 best games of the era has something for you
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by Keith Stuart and Keza MacDonald
Karaoke complexes might be relatively common now, but back in 2004 singing into a PlayStation was the closest most of us could get. SingStar’s discs of party classics formed the caterwauling soundtrack to millions of student gatherings, hen parties and five-pint Fridays all over Europe for more than a decade. Like Just Dance, it harnesses the infectious joy of pop music in a way that anyone can play.
Katamari Damacy (2004)
A gleeful absurdist masterpiece in which you start by rolling up pencils and apple peel and end up absorbing buildings, trees and, eventually, most of the planet in your big sticky ball, because why not? From the infectious soundtrack to the endearingly mad “plot”, it’s a work of pure joy.
Journey is a short and moving shared experience whose music, evocative colour palette and simple play come together as they only can in games, for a powerful emotional effect. It’s often picked as an ur-example of games as art – including by curators at the V&A, where it was front and centre at a recent exhibition.
Dark Souls (2011)
You are dead, which comes with few advantages, but at least you can’t die again – not for good, anyway. Plunging you into a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth in a world where almost nothing still breathes, Dark Souls sets you off with nothing and lets its horror-tinged dark fantasy unfold as you flail and struggle to survive. Invigoratingly uncompromising and influential, it was the breakthrough game of FromSoftware and visionary director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Despite two more Dark Souls games and a raft of imitators, there is still nothing like it.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Doing for the open-world game what Half-Life 2 did for the first-person shooter, Breath of the Wild tears up and throws away all the things that make exploration a chore – checklists, objective markers, forests of icons – to make way for true adventure. Breath of the Wild counts on your curiosity, intelligence, self-determination and ingenuity, giving you a thousand ways to apply them. Its thrillingly open wilderness makes other games feel like a quaint miniature train ride by comparison.
A dozen experiences in one … Minecraft
Swedish coder Markus “Notch” Persson didn’t invent the concept of the block-based building game – Minecraft arrived just after Zach Barth’s experimental title Infiniminer. However, the founder of Stockholm studio Mojang took the idea of a Lego-like construction game based in a procedurally generated environment and perfected it. Originally launched as a work in progress in the summer of 2009, word about this unusual blocky simulation quickly spread on PC gaming forums and a community of enthusiastic modders started to gather around the project, downloading Persson’s version but adding their own rules and graphics. From the very beginning Minecraft was a shared endeavour – a labour of love, shared between creator and fans.
By the time of its full release in November 2011, Minecraft already had 10 million registered players. Later came conversions from PC to Xbox, PlayStation and smartphones, bringing in new audiences. The game was split into two experiences: the Survival mode where players had to battle zombies and giant spiders while mining for resources, and the Creative mode where they were given an unlimited inventory of wooden, glass and stone blocks to concentrate on crafting their own ambitious projects.
This has always been the vital element of Minecraft’s success and importance: it is a dozen experiences in one. It’s about making models, but also exploration, combat and resource management. Participants can build alone or join friends, introducing a new form of online creative collaboration. Using the game’s red stone component, which allows objects in the world to be electrically powered, fans began to build complex machines including working calculators. Others constructed scale models of the USS Enterprise, Hogwarts and King’s Landing. Art galleries and museums began to take notice. The Tate Modern commissioned expert modellers to create versions of modernist artworks in the Minecraft world; the British Museum was officially recreated in the game, as was Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Over the past decade, Minecraft has become a hobby and a social space. Servers have been set up for people on the autistic spectrum, providing a vital means of meeting with and communicating with others. Hundreds of schools throughout the world use the Education edition of Minecraft to teach physics, geology, drama, art, electronics and sustainable farming. The cultural and educational reach of the game is enormous. Minecraft was vital in the rise of the celebrity gaming YouTuber – with names like StampyCat and DanTDM familiar to millions.
With more than 175m copies now sold on an array of devices from smartphones to virtual-reality headsets, Minecraft has transcended the idea of what games are and what they can achieve. When you load the game, what you do is up to you – it gives you the experience you want, and that is different for everyone. There has never been an interactive entertainment experience like it. Game makers truly believe that video games have the power – just like literature, cinema and art – to change lives. This one unquestionably, demonstrably has. Time and time again.