Sunday, 16 August 2015

Gratuitous Lists: Games for Readers

It is always interesting to see various websites produce "Books for Gamers" articles, where writers suggest novels and series for the hardcore Skyrim fan to enjoy when they're tired of knocking undead monsters into chasms. More interesting, however, would be to do the reverse. So here's a few games that SFF readers might do well to check out:

Ion Storm - 2001 - Available from

Humour in video games can be a hard thing to get right, with many more failures than successes. One of the more interesting successes is Anachronox, a 2001 roleplaying game set in the distant future. Humanity has colonised (alongside various alien races) Anachronox, a floating city made up of rotating sections inside a huge sphere of alien origin. The sphere enables FTL transit across many worlds. Your character, down-on-his-luck private investigator Sly Boots, is drawn into a mystery that starts off small in scale but eventually becomes huge in scope, taking in the fate of the galaxy, alternate realities and a mind-bending number of plot twists.

The humour is absurdly brilliant, taking in everything from satire on detective and SF cliches to riffing off superhero stories and governmental philosophies. It also has some of the craziest ideas to appear in an SF video game, taking in a miniaturised planet that joins your team as a party-member (to the disquiet of everyone you later meet - "Is that a planet floating behind you?") and a fantastically-developed sequence which pays tribute to silent movies by not involving any dialogue at all.

The game has not aged well graphically, but if you can look beyond the surface, one of the richest and most imaginative games in the roleplaying pantheon awaits.

See also: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect trilogy draw more than a little inspiration from this game, but are much more po-faced; Gearbox's Borderlands series also employs a nice line in humour (but not as good as this).

Play if you like: Douglas Adams, Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett.

Planescape: Torment
Black Isle Studios - 1999 - Available from

Most fantasy games stick fairly close to the Tolkien-derived norm (although they can often be great fun to play), but Planescape: Torment is wildly different. It is set on alternate planes of reality where thoughts and deeds can shape the landscape and where battles are more often won with philosophy and oratory skills than with swords. The game features vast reams of text and is built with subtlety and intelligence. Bursting into rooms and killing everything in sight is not the right way to go here (although the game gives you the freedom to do that, as long as you are prepared for the consequences). The game is also darkly funny and beautifully characterised with some of the most memorable characters in CRPG history, and its tone is grimly tragic.

See also: Fallout: New Vegas (see below), made by some of the same team; Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, also made by some of the same team; and the forthcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera, a deliberate spiritual successor, made by some of the same etc.

Play if you like: Gene Wolfe, Steven Erikson, China Mieville.

Elite: Dangerous
Frontier Developments - 2014 - Available from Steam

You can't fault Elite: Dangerous for ambition. It seeks to recreate nothing less than the entire Milky Way Galaxy inside your computer, all 400 billion stars of it. Every known expolanet is in its right place, you can fly through the Orion Nebula and visit the black hole at the centre of our galaxy (if you don't mind spending weeks flying there). The scale and scope of the game is vast, allowing you to make a living as a bounty hunter, mercenary, trader or miner, or mixing them up as you like.

The game can be a little bit daunting to approach, although it's fairly easy to get the basics down (and there's plenty of help online). More interesting is that the game is expanding and improving constantly, with the ability to land on planets about to be added. The game is light on story and narrative-based missions, so those who want more direction and structure may find the game too open-ended. But for those who relish exploration, this can be a deeply rewarding and time-consuming game.

See also: Freespace 2 (below) for more focus, story and combat; X3: Reunion for the ability to build your own space stations and own your own corporations; EVE Online for a much bigger, multiplayer take on the same ideas. Star Citizen (expected in 2016/17) will be a similar game with a much smaller scope but more side-ideas (such as a first-person, on-foot combat mode).

Play if you like: Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton.

Fallout: New Vegas 
Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda - 2010 - Available from Steam

The post-apocalyptic Fallout series has been going strong since the seminal, original 1996 RPG. It received a lease of new life when Elder Scrolls developers Bethesda bought the rights to the franchise and released Fallout 3 in 2008. However, it's the 2010 entry to the series, New Vegas, that remains the strongest game in the series to date. Developed by much the same team as the first two games, it's a post-apocalyptic Western taking in themes of revenge, redemption and war.

Like Skyrim (developed on the same engine), New Vegas allows you to create your own character and set foot in a vast, open-world landscape (in this case, the Mojave Desert and the area around Las Vegas), free to pursue a large number of missions and quests for different factions. However, New Vegas has a much tighter focus on narrative and character than other games of its ilk, with a particular emphasis on the moral consequences of your decisions. The game gives you enormous freedom to decide how to proceed, who can live or die and which faction will rule Nevada...or if you tell them all to take a running jump and conquer the wastelands yourself with your own army of laser death robots. The game's expansions (included in most editions of the game) are by turns inventive, epic, hilarious and darkly metafictional.

See also: Fallout 3 is less sophisticated than New Vegas in terms of character and narrative, but it is more approachable, easier and perhaps a little more rewarding for those who prepare straight-up action to dialogue; Wasteland 2 is a top-down, party-based take on the same post-apocalyptic genre and is more reminiscent of the original two Fallout games. Of course, the most natural alternative is the brand-new game in the series, Fallout 4, which will be released in November and will be set in and around Boston.

Play if you like: Hugh Howey, Walter M. Miller Jnr., S.M. Stirling, the Mad Max movies.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Eidos Montreal - 2011 - Available from Steam

The original Deus Ex (2000) may be one of the greatest games ever made, but it's also borderline unplayable today due to clunky controls and aged graphics. The 2011 series prequel/reboot is much less hardcore and flexible, but also a lot more approachable whilst still being true to the series' roots.

This is a cyberpunk epic, set in a future dominated by massive mega-corporations, growing AI and the increasing augmentation of humans with cybernetic technology. Hard questions about morality, medical ethics and corporate responsibility are asked and engaged with intelligently. The game also allows you to choose how to play it, whether you burst into every situation with all guns blazing (note: I would not recommend this), stealthily knock out all of your enemies with EMPs and tranquilisers, or instead "ghosting" your way through situations with no-one being aware of your presence at all. Some irritating boss fights aside (made much better in the Director's Cut of the game), this is a smart and smoothly-executed SF game.

See also: The direct sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, is due out in 2016. In the meantime, you can try Satellite Reign, a top-down, squad-based cyberpunk game from the team that brought us the classic Syndicate games of the 1990s, due out on 28 August. There's also Shadowrun Returns and its sequels Dragonfall and Hong Kong, which fuse cyberpunk with epic fantasy. Those who enjoy the stealth aspects of the game may want to check out Invisible Inc, or the similar steampunk take on the same idea, Dishonored (see below). If you have a high forgiveness for its aged graphics and idiosyncratic gameplay, you can also check out the original Deus Ex.

Play if you like: Richard Morgan, William Gibson, K.W. Jeter.

Blizzard - 1998 - Available from Blizzard

Real-time strategy had been around for a few years (not least in Blizzard's own WarCraft franchise) when Blizzard released StarCraft in 1998. However, this was the first game to really successfully marry some intelligent, solid strategy gameplay with memorable characters and a well-told story. There's nothing hugely original here, but the story of three races caught in a desperate struggle for survival on the far side of the galaxy is well-told and colourfully depicted. The game also has a wonderful line in self-deprecating humour.

See also: StarCraft II and its two expansions are more recent, better-looking and more lavish. However, they are also more po-faced, way too overlong and more clumsily written. They're still entertaining, but lack the original game's tightness. Relic's Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series are much more satisfying real-time strategy games from a gameplay perspective, but lack Blizzard's narrative drive. For different types of strategy game, Hostile Waters and Homeworld (see below) are worthy alternatives.

Play if you like: Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Jack McKinney.

Crusader Kings II
Paradox Entertainment - 2012 - Available from Steam

Strategy games usually de-emphasise the human element in favour of managing economics, fighting massive battles and researching tech trees. Crusader Kings II still has those things, but uses a complex dynasty simulator to add a tremendous amount of humanity to the game. Your heir is no longer just a collection of stats, but an overreaching religious fanatic with poor diplomatic skills but makes for a serviceable general. Unfortunately, it later turns out he has a perchance for incest that puts your entire dynasty's future in jeopardy when you offend a prickly vassal and he declares a rebellion against you.

The result is a tense, unpredictable and original strategy game (which can also be inadvertently hilarious) where each playthrough can be completely different. There are also excellent mods available, including a fantastic one that turns the game into an unofficial Game of Thrones title, complete with maps of Westeros and Essos and all of the factions from the books available.

See also: Crusader Kings II can be a little complicated and daunting to get into. Firaxis's Civilization V is likewise huge in scope but much more approachable (but less hardcore); the Creative Assembly's Total War series (see below) dial back the sophistication of the grand strategy element but are far more compelling simulators of historical warfare. Paradox's own Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron series take the gameplay ideas of Crusader Kings forwards into the Renaissance and World War II eras respectively.

Play if you like: George R.R. Martin, Bernard Cornwell.

Freespace 2
Volition/Interplay - 1999 - Available from

The space combat genre was huge in the 1990s, with games like the Wing Commander and X-Wing series providing the thrills of jumping into a trusty space fighter and blowing the hell out of everything in sight. However, it was the one-two punch of Volition's Conflict Freespace: The Great War (1998) and its sequel (1999) that dropped the mic on the genre. Freespace 2 was a stunning achievement, beautiful to look at, massive in scope and constantly engaging with a twisting, turning storyline and, in the implacable Shivans, one of the most terrifying alien enemies to ever appear in a game. The inscrutably bizarre ending, unsullied by sequels that could only have cheapened it, is also highly unusual and thoughtful for the genre.

It's not often to see a game basically perfect its genre to the point where further games of its type are pointless, but Freespace 2 did just that. You can also visit the Freespace 2 Source Code Project to get some excellent mods that upgrade the graphics to modern standards and add new campaigns.

See also: GoG recently reissued the entire X-Wing series of space combat games, which are well worth taking a look at for Star Wars fans. Elite: Dangerous (see above) has brilliant combat, but is much less narrative-focused. The forthcoming Squadron 42 (a spin-off from the in-development Star Citizen) will be the first major, single-player, narrative-driven space combat game in many years.

Play if you like: Timothy Zahn, David Weber, David Drake, anything with spaceships going boom.

The Banner Saga
Stoic - 2013 - Available on Steam

The Banner Saga is a remarkable game. It mixes the harshness and brutality of a Viking-riffing epic fantasy with the beauty of a classic Disney cartoon and richly compelling gameplay influenced by sources ranging from Battlestar Galactica to The Oregon Trail. This is a story about choice and consequence, with an invading army of mechanical robots reducing entire civilisations to ash and causing thousands of refugees to try to escape to other lands. Unusually, you take command of two of these refugee trains on opposite sides of the continent, trying to reach one redoubt of safety halfway inbetween where a final stand can be mounted. Your leadership skills are put to the test as you deal with attacking enemy skirmishers, low supplies and how to handle disputes between different factions. It's a delicious mix of gameplay types set against a vivid world where the Sun is dimming and massive artifacts from a long-obliterated age sit on the horizon. Well worth a look.

See also: The Banner Saga II, due in a couple of months, continues the story. The ancient Oregon Trail (and its amusing zombie remake, The Organ Trail) feature a similar focus on survival in a harsh wilderness. Some of the same team are also making a thieves' guild management simulator, Killers and Thieves, with a similarly interesting art style. Skyshine's Bedlam is a forthcoming, post-apocalyptic steampunk take on the same ideas as The Banner Saga, using the same engine.

Play if you like: Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, anything Viking-flavoured.

Arkane/Bethesda - 2012 - Available on Steam

Dishonored is a game which mashes up multiple genres together to memorable effect. It's set in a steampunk world of weird creatures and has a strange, haunting atmosphere, more than slightly reminiscent of China Mieville's Bas-Lag books. It allows you to proceed through stealth or all-out violence but gifts you with an array of abilities which, by the end of the game, allow you to teleport and stop time like a superhero. It's a freeform adventure with an intriguing narrative which adjusts flexibly to different playing styles. More impressively, in the game's expansions the POV reverses and you can now play from the perspective of the villain as well as the "hero".

See also: Deus Ex: Human Revolution for a cyberpunk game in a similar vein; Thief: The Dark Project and its sequels and remake for the direct inspiration to this game; Half-Life 2 for similarly memorable graphic and architectural design. Dishonored II is in development for a 2016 release.

Play if you like: China Mieville, Fritze Lieber.

Homeworld Remastered
Relic/Blackbird/Gearbox - 1999/2003/2015 - Available on Steam

Few games wear their classic SF influences as openly as Homeworld. Using a similar basic premise to Battlestar Galactica, this tale of a group of survivors from a destroyed colony planet to find their true homeworld is haunting, atmospheric and strategically compelling. The game is worth playing alone for its fantastic graphic design, influenced by classic 1970s SF cover artists Peter Elson and Chris Foss, and its beautiful soundtrack (although sadly the recent Remastered Edition does away with the closing credits song by 1970s prog-masters Yes).

See also: Ground Control and its sequel are probably the closest we have to a ground-based version of Homeworld. Sins of a Solar Empire and Haegemonia: Legions of Iron are other space-based strategy games, but play very differently. The creators of Homeworld are currently working on a planet-based prequel, Homeworld: Shipbreakers.

Play if you like: the Terran Trade Authority universe books, Battlestar Galactica, military SF, anything with a Chris Foss or Peter Elson cover.

Subset - 2012 - Available on Steam

A lot of space games take either the perspective of you directly controlling the ship through a 3D universe (like Elite: Dangerous) or massing a huge fleet and taking on enemy forces (like Homeworld). FTL is a little different. You only have one ship but the game is more interested in how you manage the crew and resources than directly controlling its course. You have a fleet of hostile ships on your tail and you have to make it to a rendezvous point with vital intel on the enemy flagship. Along the way you can be ambushed by roving enemies, answer distress calls, salvage valuable tech and recruit new crewmembers. It's a tough, unforgiving game where death is frequent and failure almost inevitable. But you also learn from each failure and every play-through gets you a little closer to the end. It's a compelling experience that results in a user-created narrative that changes with each play-through.

See also: Nexus: The Jupiter Incident for a more combat-based, 3D experience; Star Trek: Bridge Commander, which does exactly what it says in the title.

Play if you like: Firefly, James S.A. Corey, Peter F. Hamilton.

Medieval II: Total War
Creative Assembly - 2006 - Available on Steam

A lot of strategy games, from Civilization through to Crusader Kings, allow you to take command of a nation-state and take it from minor player to world-bestriding colossus through a mix of diplomacy, technological research and, occasionally and carefully-considered, restrained warfare.

The Total War series has little truck with this. You still control an empire and build up cities, but the game's focus is firmly on war, war and more war. The turn-based strategy mode is pretty much just there to provide a context for the gorgeous, well-realised 3D battles featuring real-world tactics and armies of thousands raining arrows on one another and hitting each other in the face with swords. There have been numerous games in the series, but 2006's Medieval II probably remains the high point due to its sheer scope (all of Europe from the end of the Viking age to the dawn of the Renaissance) and also its moddability: you can download mods for the game that turn it into anything from Middle-earth to Westeros to Hyrule. Later games in the series are far less customisable.

See also: more recent games in the series like Total War: Rome II and its stand-alone expansion Hannibal are graphically far superior, but tend to lack the deeper gameplay of older titles in the series. The next game in the series will be a major departure, taking place as it does in the Warhammer fantasy universe. Games like Crusader Kings II go into the strategic layer a lot more, but lack the amazing 3D real-time battles.

Play if you like: J.R.R. Tolkien (the Third Age: Total War mod for Medieval II is the best Lord of the Rings video game ever made), George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell, Paul Kearney, Stephen Pressfield, anything with large armies of dudes whacking other dudes with bits of metal.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings
CD Projekt - 2011 - Available on Steam

This may be cheating a little, as The Witcher 2 is based on the bestelling fantasy novels by Polish superstar Andrzej Sapkowski. However, it's also interesting for a game based on a series of novels to first massively outsell those novels and then raise interest in them. It's happened before with TV and film of course, but I haven't seen it before with video games.

On its own merits, The Witcher 2 is worth playing. It has a morally murky plot with real consequences (the entire middle third of the game is completely different based on choices made near the start), a refreshingly mature attitude to sex and nudity (unlike the first game, which was much more juvenile) and the successful evocation of a traditional fantasy world but imbuing it with an alien and bizarre atmosphere.

See also: The Witcher 3, once you've finished the second game. The third is a much, much bigger and more freeform title, so you may benefit from playing the second (and more focused) first. I'd avoid the first game as it's combat and sluggish pace is painful to behold, although it does have some great moments in it. BioWare's Dragon Age series can be seen as The Witcher's more PG-rated, duller and less ambitious cousin. Obsidian's recent Pillars of Eternity is a similar brilliant, fantasy roleplaying game that does things a bit differently to the norm.

Play if you like: Andrzej Sapkowski, natch.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Starbreeze - 2013 - Available on Steam

Platform games in which you don't have to kill people in the face are few and far between, and this is the best of them. You control two boys whose father is sick and they have to travel to a mountain to find the cure. There are some fun puzzles based around the boys' personalities and ages (the older son is stronger but also clumsier, whilst the younger son can charm other characters with his goofy antics) but the game's strength lies in its atmosphere. There's also no dialogue, with the characters speaking a completely fictional language which is not translated. You have to work out what they are saying or meaning through context.

It's a short game, taking just 3-4 hours or so to put away, but in the process the game ranges through multiple, beautiful environments and runs the full gamut of emotions from comedy to terror to tragedy.

See also: Journey on the PS3 for a similar combat-less, dialogue-less experience.

Play if you like: crying, Studio Ghibli, feels. Actually, I cheated on this one because it's a good example of a game where its effect and mood would be near-impossible to replicate in a novel or short story. It gives a hint of what the medium can do when it really tries to be its own thing, rather than a Hollywood movie or blockbuster novel in another form.


Sebastian said...

Fantastic list! Though I do find the criticism of Deus Ex having clunky controls and being borderline unplayable quite extreme. To this day I have no problems playing it, and while the graphics may not be the prettiest, they are not ugly, either, which is a nice advantage of the Unreal engine.

Flavius T. said...

I'm actually curious, about this phrase in regard to the Total War series - "tend to lack the deeper gameplay of older titles in the series". I've seen it popping-up pretty much everywhere there is a discussion or a review about Rome II, so I'll really appreciate if you share your opinion what is so much missing in Rome II compared to the old titles, that makes it 'shallow' and 'lacking' (apart from the family tree, of course, however I myself personally have always found it pretty much useless and restraining). Thank you very much in advance, and please do not take this comment as a cavil or something like that.

Otherwise, thanks a lot for the recommendations for Crusader Kings II and Dishonored - seems I should give them a try soon.

genrebending said...

Planescape: Torment remains my favorite game of all time. Such good writing.

Jevon said...

Great list of games. Would you be willing to share your email address with me? I would like to share an idea for a post with you.