A quick word on some favorites
First off, there are no (and never will be) perfect games. It is not possible to say which game is the ‘best’ as the question itself is pretty much meaningless. A more appropriate question would be which game is the ‘Best’ in a certain aspect, and even that is subjective to the individual. Even of my own opinion it is difficult to say what I believe to be the ‘best’ game, or even my favorite game.
If however, someone were to put a gun to my head and ask such a silly question, I would say it is a tie between Deus Ex and Final Fantasy VII. If then forced to choose between those two then I would probably be dead before I heard the shot. My fondness for both prevents me from making a decision. Both are large in scope, have complex stories, different ways to play, great music, action and effectively provoke emotion. Neither have aged well and when I revisit them I notice more and more flaws, but I will forever remember these with rose tinted glasses. I played them at just the most appropriate moments in my life for them to have the biggest impact and they will not soon be forgotten.
The Half-Life series would stand out as another favourite. There isn’t as heavy a story element as the aforementioned RPG’s, but the elements that exist are implemented in a much more subtle way with very little exposition. A lot of the world’s history and the story must be discovered through exploration and attention to detail. There are no journals that describe what’s happening, no audio recordings, no cut-scenes or anything that requires you to stop playing or otherwise remove control from your character.
It’s all in the scenery, the few lines of chatter from NPC’s, and even the weapons that you use. Aside from the action and mechanics being enjoyable, the world feels very unique. Though the story of a dystopian future has been told many times, Half-Life makes it it’s own. I always found the desolate, industrial environment (such as that of outskirts of city 17 and the Black Mesa facility) to be creepy and chilling. Half-life portrays this so effectively to have me thoroughly engaged. There is so much of the environment that tells a story (or stories) and you can get distracted from the action by taking in the world, which is not a bad complaint when the action is also enjoyable.
After the above 3 mentioned games it gets a tad more difficult to to pull immediate ‘favorite’ games, as we are now at a tier that comprises many great games of different genres. For some reason I keeping thinking of the ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ games (both ‘Bloodlines’ and ‘Redemption’) of which I also have fond memories. Mechanically they weren’t anything special, in fact ‘Bloodlines’ took years to fix and have it play as originally intended, but aside from the flaws, the characters and world in which these stories were told kept me playing and replaying both.
First person shooters also have a place in this category, though I may be remembering these a bit over fondly however, as I no longer have as much patience for them now as I had when I was younger. I can play an RPG for hours, but a straight shooter for only an hour or so. There isn’t usually enough variation on the ‘Point at thing and shoot’ mechanic to keep me engaged for too long.
These are the games to which I can sit down, get my moments of gratification and catharsis, then immediately forget about it. Examples of these would be the Doom series, Quake Series, Unreal series, Gears of War, Call of Duty (the older World War 2 ones, and maybe MW4) and so on. Not my favorite games, but they have their place. Though technically Half-Life would be in this genre, it has far more depth and I consider it a tier above the others. Traditional Shooters generally have the combat and action first and story/world is very secondary, but Half-Life doesn’t sacrifice any aspect.
I want to briefly mention online games. These aren’t for me, not usually anyway. Though I have spent countless hours on Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead and some MMO’s, I find myself rarely returning to them. Not that these games are bad by any means (in fact they are incredibly well made) but the online aspect takes a lot of the engagement out of the experience. I want to absorb myself into the story and experience it personally, not share it. I understand that Team and Deathmatch games are not about the story and do away with it, but I simply don’t have enough competitive desire to play them in any long term way.
To avoid just listing games that I like, I’ll briefly mention the ones that seem to stand out in my mind. The Elder Scroll Series, as well as some of the Resident evil games are there. I also have had a lot of fun with the old Colin Mcrae Rally games as well as the Gran Turismo series, which looking at the other titles I have mentioned now seem quite out of place.
I think there are common elements between most of aforementioned games. Atmosphere, character, story and environment are important factors. These have stuck with me more than anything else. This isn’t exclusive to RPGS. It can be all genres. For use of an example I wanted to make a comparison between Half-life 2 and Quake 4. Both are highly well produced games, are first person shooters and are part of a long running popular series.
I can recall almost every event in Half-Life 2 beginning to end. From the moment you appear on the train at city 17 to time standing still mid-explosion, atop the citadel finale. I can recount every step it took to get there, the events that lead up to it, every level and main character. I haven’t played Half-Life 2 in a couple of years.
I haven’t played Quake 4 in a couple of years either, but I can’t remember a single character name, location, why I was there or the overall point other than ‘kill the big boss otherwise humans will die’. I remember getting transformed halfway through, that there is a bit with an enormous heart that you have to stop and a tank vehicle bit, but not much more. I recall enjoying shooting and action in a vague sense, but it was not a memorable game. It wasn’t bad or frustrating to play, just completely forgettable.
Ultimately I want to be invested in the world I inhabit. To care for the characters that I’m fighting for, and alongside. To explore a well put together environment rich in interesting details. Gameplay should at least be competently implemented. If implemented to a point where it is enjoyable and engaging, then it will be a game with which I will get along just fine.