Video Games for Literature Lovers

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Source: James Bit Originals.

“A game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014)

At last, it is time to bring two of my interests together: literature and video games. I have tried to create a varied list of games that are either directly inspired by works of literature or are a strong narrative experience themselves. However, my own personal bias has definitely influenced what made the cut (I am all about atmosphere), not to mention the fact that I have tried to recommend only those games that I have either played myself or watched playthroughs of. That said, hopefully there will be something on this list for everybody, from the more experienced gamer to someone who is completely new to the field. Think of this list as a starting point. If you have any suggestions or recommendations that you want to share, please leave a comment below!

Note I: These games are presented in no particular order.

Note II: Take a shot every time I use the word “journey,” “experience,” or “patience.”

Note III: Take another shot when I recommend a game that features terminal illness and/or traffic accidents in some way.

Note IV: Or Troy Baker.

Untitled-18 BioShock (2007)
First-person shooter, steampunk, horror

It’s A Bit Like:
Atlas Shrugged (1957) by Ayn Rand – directly connected, in this case.

What Is It:
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a dystopian tale where all the visionaries of the United States decide against the society behind that has been holding them back for so long; in the novel’s climax, its hero holds a long speech where he argues against collectivism and the idea that we are all responsible for each other – instead, he claims, we should only have to contribute voluntarily. This philosophy of rational self-interest is at the core of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. In her eyes, if we continue to weigh the great Atlas down with the weight of the world, we are left with nothing but mediocrity.

My personal feelings on Ayn Rand aside eurgh the absolute wo, this game is fascinating because it asks the question: what if the creative leaders of the world had decided to found their own utopia? In BioShock, the underwater city of Rapture started out as a magnificent metropolis where the most important thing was individual freedom; when you enter the city you are greeted with a large statue looming over you, holding a red banner that reads: “No Gods Or Kings: Only Man.” However, it quickly becomes clear that Rapture has fallen into chaos, and you will have to make your way through a city full of maniacal junkies and big clunking robots. You are guided by the voice of Atlas, a disillusioned revolutionary (with a working-class Irish lilt to his voice) who is now begging you to find his wife and child for him.

If all this sounds fascinating and you want a more thorough exploration of Atlas Shrugged and BioShock, you should read this article. Don’t read unless you want the game spoiled for you!

Why Should You Play It:
BioShock is not only a fun first-person shooter, but the city of Rapture is one of the most visually interesting settings for a video game I have experienced to date. It is an art déco metropolis fallen into disrepair, but you can still see that at one time, this city was a wonder of the world. Its story is revealed through the stories of Atlas and other characters you meet along the way as well as audio logs scattered across the city. Some people may not bother with these collectibles, but I very highly recommend seeking them out and taking the time to listen to the recordings. They add so much to the story and Rapture’s atmosphere, I consider them unmissable if you want the full BioShock experience.

And After That:
After BioShock 2, I would very highly recommend moving on to BioShock Infinite. It’s… It’s so good, you guys. This game shows you a positively magical utopia that did succeed; Columbia is a golden city founded on individual platforms floating in the sky, and when you first walk through its sunny streets, it seems too good to be true. And it is. Naturally. If this makes you want to do some more shooting in a beautifully rendered environment while enjoying a good story with a character voiced by Troy Baker, you should definitely look into The Last of Us (2013 – don’t skip the DLC) and Uncharted 4 (2016 – don’t forget to actually play the game instead of just messing about with the photo mode).

 

Untitled-14 The Stanley Parable (2011)
First-person interactive story, postmodern, comedy

It’s A Bit Like:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) by Dave Eggers, The Book With No Pictures (2014) by B.J. Novak, “City of Glass” (The New York Trilogy, 1985) by Paul Auster, and the movie Stranger Than Fiction (2006).

What Is It:
I barely even know how to describe this game without spoiling the entire thing for you, so just… Trust me on this one. Go play it and find out.

Why Should You Play It:
The Stanley Parable is the gaming equivalent of a postmodern novel that breaks the fourth wall on the very first page of the book – this is as meta as it gets. Every decision you make leads you to a different ending, each more ingenious than the next (and believe me, you will want to see them all). This is one of the funniest and most surprising games I have played in years; I seriously cannot recommend it enough. The Steam reviews are the best you will ever read, including two of my personal favourites:

“Laptop battery died and I thought it was part of the game. 11/10.”
“Only game where I’ve been perfectly happy to voluntarily sit in a broom closet for ten minutes.”

Yes, really.

And After That:
Portal (2007) and Portal 2 (2011), created by the same team. These titles singlehandedly got me into gaming five years ago, so in a way they are the reason this post even exists. If solving puzzles in a testing facility while being taunted by a snarky robot sounds like fun to you… Well, it is. It’s hilarious, actually. My favourite Steam reviews:

“Stupid potato gave me nightmares.”
“Mean white woman makes you do things or else you lose your job.”
“Got called a marshmellow.”

 

Untitled-15 Alan Wake (2010)
Third-person action game, horror, psychological thriller, episodic

It’s A Bit Like:
The Shining (1977) by Stephen King or any other story of his about a washed up writer (take your pick), H.P. Lovecraft, Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

What Is It:
Alan Wake is an author of mystery novels who struggles with writer’s block – and his own sanity. While on vacation in the little town of Bright Falls, his wife goes missing and he finds himself chased by own of his own fictional creations with nothing but a flashlight to protect him (well, okay, and a gun – but the flashlight is really important). Throughout the game you will find pages of the manuscript to a novel that appears to be coming true before his very eyes; much like the audio logs in BioShock, taking the time to examine these really adds to the whole experience.

Why Should You Play It:
Both the character of Alan Wake and his story were heavily inspired by Stephen King, and the creator of the game says that he also drew from Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the works of Bret Easton Ellis and Neil Gaiman. If you like stories where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred and the protagonist starts to wonder if his own mind can be trusted, this may just be your cup of tea. That said, I have to admit that I lost interest after a while and never actually finished this, but this may have been because it was the wrong game at the wrong time for me. It was generally well-received, so this might be a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

And After That:
Read some more Stephen King. Maybe play your way through the Silent Hill franchise. The developers of Alan Wake have also released a “spiritual successor”, Quantum Break, in 2016. This game has integrated television episodes that continue the story, which sounds like an interesting idea; however, it has been getting mixed reviews so far. I haven’t actually played it myself, but from what I’ve heard, it’s got time travel and Lance Reddick, so… Fringe: The Game? I don’t know. Go find out and then report back to me.

 

GoneHome_3 Gone Home (2013)
First-person interactive story, mystery, LGBTQ, coming of age

It’s A Bit Like:
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (2009) by Leanne Shapton and S. (2013) by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams (review here).

What Is It:
In Gone Home, you play a young college student who has come home to spend time with her younger sister Sam, only to find the house abandoned with Sam nowhere to be seen. You go from room to room looking for her and examine any object you can get your hands on, looking for any clue as to what might have happened. As you progress, the heartbreaking story of your sister and everything she has been hiding unfolds through her letters, diary entries, and secret notes passed in class. It is the most intimate kind of detective work.

Why Should You Play It:
I absolutely adore this game, but not everyone loves it quite as much as I do. One Steam reviewer gave Gone Home a thumbs down for being “a lesbian scavenger hunt” – which is my favourite thing about it. At least one youtuber I know ran from room to room looking for enemies to fight or objects to collect, only to arrive at the end utterly disappointed and confused. This is not about gaining XP or finding the best loot; Gone Home cannot be won. It is an emotional journey that requires patience and a certain attention to detail or you’ll miss out on a lot of the content. You need to take your time and explore, examine, read. If you go into this game with the right mindset, it is an incredibly rewarding experience that will leave you feeling like Sam has revealed a secret to you.

And After That:
Layers of Fear (2015), a horror game inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray about an alcoholic painter who has gone insane. Slightly more action-packed and less introspective, but basically the same concept once you’ve stripped away the demon rats and the baby carousel from hell. You find out what happened in this man’s past by reading letters and notes – just try to get past the period-inappropriate language and occasionally very clunky writing. The production team behind this game is Polish, and at times you can definitely tell that English is not their first language. The visuals and atmosphere more than make up for it though. Life Is Strange is also worth looking into (it’s featured later on this list).

 

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The Wolf Among Us (2013)
Episodic, fairy tales, interactive mystery, noir

It’s A Bit Like:
The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter (review here), American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman

What Is It:
The basic premise is very similar to the TV show Once Upon a Time, except that it’s actually good. BOOM! I am not even sorry, I just had to. In this world, famous characters from fairy tales and folklore are trying to make a new life for themselves in a contemporary city. You play as Bigby Wolf – the Big Bad Wolf, get it? – who is the sherrif of Fabletown, a community of magical creatures who have to keep their head down and stay under the radar of the normal human population. Because of his past behaviour (eating people, blowing down pigs’ houses, that sort of thing), he struggles to get people to trust him. The promise of a fresh start and a clean slate turns out to be much more difficult to realise than any of them had expected. Fabletown has loan sharks, drug dealers, prostitutes, corruption, and, depending on how you play Bigby, police violence. For a story that has Snow White and Ichabod Crane in it, it is an eerily relevant narrative for today’s political climate in the United States.

Why Should You Play It:
Like I said, now seems like the best possible time to immerse yourself in this game. When Bigby gets accused of abusing his power as sherrif and not treating every Fable equally, it is difficult not to think of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Crooked Man’s schemes are even more disturbing when you’ve seen John Oliver’s segment on predatory lending. It’s all there if you know where to look. (Quick side note: interestingly, these complex undertones and shades of gray are completely lost on many of the youtubers who have played this game. Make of that what you will.) The Wolf Among Us also has some of the best visuals Telltale has ever produced, with a cast of strong characters, great dialogues performed by a solid cast, and an ending that will make you want to replay the whole thing immediately.

And After That:
Read the Fables comics to learn more about these characters and the struggles of Fabletown. I am also huge fan of anything Telltale has put out in recent years, so I would very highly recommend Tales From The Borderlands (2014 – think Mad Max meets Guardians of the Galaxy, with more voice work by Troy Baker) and The Walking Dead (2013 – ?, prepare for tears and pain). They made a Game of Thrones tie-in as well, but since I cannot get that game to run properly on my computer for some reason, I can’t tell you if it’s actually any good. You might also be interested in Heavy Rain (2010), where the solution to the murder mystery changes depending on your actions throughout the game. Fair warning though: the narrative is not as strong as the Telltale Games output, and you will have to sit through the occasional toothbrushing simulator and ‘press X to JASON‘ nonsense.

 

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Dear Esther (2008)
First-person exploration, nature, mystery

It’s a Bit Like:
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) by James Boswell

What Is It:
This game started out as a free-to-play mod for Half-Life 2, but then became so popular that it was released as its own commercial title. As you explore the abandoned buildings and bleak landscape of an island in the Hebrides, you listen to a man read out a series of letters to a deceased woman named Esther. There are no puzzles, no tasks, just… Walking, as he slowly reveals the details of her death and talks about his solitude and grief. And… That’s it. That’s the game.

Why Should You Play It:
If you are at all interested in how narrative works in the gaming industry, you need to take a look at Dear Esther; it is one of the most divisive titles in the last decade. It was critically acclaimed and won many awards when it first came out, but many people asked: is this even a game? Dear Esther abandoned traditional video gaming structures to such an extent that a great number of players ended up hating it for being slow and boring. Even the story itself is dreamlike and open to many different interpretations, which may make it even more frustrating to some. There is nothing to interact with and no run option, so if you walk into the wrong direction, backtracking can be a real pain if you don’t have the greatest attention span. Personally, I didn’t mind a bit of wandering with nothing but the wind blowing in my ears – but your enjoyment of this game really depends on what you are looking for as a player.  I tend to look for an atmospheric experienc, and in the 2012 remake the combination of the visuals and sound really worked for me. What can I say? It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love a good walking simulator, flaws and all. It’s all about immersion.

And After That:
The creators recently released a similar game called Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2016). From what I can tell, the critical reception so far sounds a lot like the reviews Dear Esther got back in the day: interesting concept, solid story, and a beautiful setting, but with very little interaction and a slow walking pace. I remember one reviewer calling these games interactive audio books, which, I think, shows how you should approach them: with patience. A recurring theme on this list, come to think of it. You may also want to take a look at Kentucky Route Zero (2014), another slow-paced, more experimental game that I can really only (attempt to) describe as Welcome to Night Vale and the works of Haruki Murakami colliding with a touch of Edward Hopper. It’s strange and dreamlike – not a game I would recommend to everyone – but if you are looking for something almost hypnotic and unique, you should definitely check it out.

 

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To The Moon (2011)
16-bit RPG, science fiction, time travel

It’s A Bit Like:
The first ten minutes of Up (2009) told in reverse with a touch of Inception (2010) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

What Is It:
In To The Moon, two scientists are called to the house of a dying man who has always dreamt of going to the moon. Their job is to travel through his memories and implant the ambition of becoming an astronaut. Once they’ve done that, the memories will “reset” and form a new past for him to remember, one that includes going to the moon. While going through his past, the scientists learn more about their patient and the things he has experienced in his life… And why this dream is so important to him.

Why Should You Play It:
Don’t be put off by the simple graphics; this game is a gem. With pixely images like these, it is almost entirely up to the writing to make this world and its characters come to life, and the creaters of To The Moon pass this test with flying colours. Music plays an important role in this game as well, and the piano-filled soundtrack is deservedly popular among fans (50% of the soundtrack’s proceeds go to charities for autism!). To The Moon will suck you in, and a few hours later you will be staring at your screen, wondering how such a deceptively simple-looking game could make you feel so many emotions.

And After That:
Once you’re done crying, put on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and cry some more – you need to get all of this out of your system first. Then come back to this list. There’s more where that came from.

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Life Is Strange (2015)
Third-person interactive story, episodic, time travel, LGBTQ

It’s A Bit Like:
Looking For Alaska (2005) by John Green, The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury, Donnie Darko (2001), Veronica Mars (2004-2007),

What Is It:
Life Is Strange is about a student named Maxine who moves back to Portland Arcadia Bay, the town where she grew up, to attend a prestigious art school. One day, she starts having visions of an apocalyptic storm destroying the city. Distraught, she flees into a bathroom, only to witness one of her classmates shoot a girl right in front of her. And then she turns back time. Arcadia Bay turns out to hold many dark secrets, and Maxine has to race against time to figure out how her gift works and if she can save the girl – maybe even the town. Or both.

Why Should You Play It:
Some people write this game off for its Portland hipster Juno slang twee #aesthetic – and yes, you will spend part of the game taking polaroids while listening to artists like Alt-J and José Gonzalez – but what keeps it from tipping over the edge for me is its heart. In the wrong hands, Life Is Strange could very easily be unbearable and forced, but the creators have managed to hold on to an emotional sincerity that is vital for this kind of story. For the most part, anyway. You will still ask people if they are “cereal” and that mean girl in your class will still snark “sadface” at you for being stuck on taking melancholic selfies. Try to look past that. Despite the occasional misstep, this is a charming game that brought me to tears multiple times and made me shout “NO” at my screen when I’d made a terrible decision. Much like the Telltale games, your choices affect the course of the story and even change the ending depending on the player. Personally I don’t mind a pinch of pretentiousness in my games, but if this is something that might keep you from giving Life Is Strange a try, I urge you to keep an open mind and give it a chance!

And After That:
Any of the previously-mentioned Telltale games and Gone Home would fit the bill quite nicely.

 

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014)
First-person mystery, exploration, horror, open world

It’s A Bit Like:
Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft (2008) by H.P. Lovecraft, The X Files (1993 – ?)

What Is It:
You play as a paranormal detective who receives a strange letter from a young boy named Ethan Carter and travels to a small mining village in Wisconsin to investigate. While exploring the abandoned valley, he comes across evidence of violence and curious events, but Ethan is nowhere to be found. …And that’s all I’m going to say, because anything more would completely spoil the game. This is a detective story after all.

Why Should You Play It:
The puzzle solving is fun, but this game is all about environment and atmosphere. It’s not perfect, but still well-made and definitely intriguing with an ending that caught me completely by surprise. …And once again, there is not a lot more I can say without spoiling it. So. Yeah. It’ll remain a mystery until you play it yourself.

And After That:
Kholat (2015) would be a good place to start, as well as Among The Sleep (2014). I also hear good things about Homesick (2015), but I haven’t yet had the chance to check it out.

 

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Emily Is Away (2015)
Interactive story, retro, romance

It’s A Bit Like:
My computer circa 2002  One Day (2009) by David Nicholls, Attachments (2011) by Rainbow Rowell, epistolary novels

What Is It:
In this game, you follow the relationship of two people, Emily and the nameless protagonist, through their AOL logs, ending in their senior year of college.

Why Should You Play It:
Well, first of all, it’s free to play. Secondly, as someone who was a young adult around the same time as these characters, this game hits me right in that nostalgia sweet spot. Forget the 90s, the early to mid 2000s is where it’s at. Clicking through the Avril Lavigne and Eminem avatars brought back so many memories of my own, especially all the time I spent talking to people on forums and MSN Messenger. Emily’s favourite band shifts from Coldplay to Snow Patrol to Muse to Death Cab For Cutie, which is so close to the development of my own taste in music (exactly like mine) that it’s almost scary. Nostalgia goggles aside, this is a short game that manages to hit all the right emotional notes while using only the simplest of mechanics. “Bittersweet” would be the perfect word to describe it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to lock myself in my bedroom and play “I’m With You” very loudly while crying myself to sleep over the lost loves of yesteryear. I absolutely did not have conversations a lot like this on MSN when I was a teenager what are you talking about leave me alone.

And After That:
Whatever you do, don’t watch the playthrough of anyone who uses the word “friendzone” in connection to this game (go stand in a corner and think about what you’ve done Pewdiepie). Don’t use it yourself either. Don’t be that person. That said, Digital: A Love Story (2010) is an obvious choice.

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Firewatch (2016)
First-person adventure, mystery, nature

It’s A Bit Like:
Into The Wild (1997) by Jon Krakauer, Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë (I know a lot of you will raise a skeptical eyebrow at this one, but I swear I can back it up)

What Is It:
Firewatch is set in 1989 and tells the story of a man named Henry, who decides to run away from his problems at home and takes a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. There, the only contact he has with the outside world is the occasional walkie-talkie conversation with his supervisor Delilah. While exploring his surroundings, he starts to wonder if there is something strange going on, especially when he sees a mysterious figure watching him from afar.

Why Should You Play It:
Some people were disappointed by this game’s ending, but I would argue that they went into Firewatch with the wrong expectations. This is a game about what it means to be a flawed, messed up human being and how different people react to pain, loss, and being burdened with past mistakes. It’s about connection, about escaping, and about denial, all told through well-written conversations delivered by very talented voice actors (Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones do a fantastic job carrying this game together). The colours, the music, everything comes together to take you on a journey that will make you want to call your mother/significant other/best friend and tell them that you love them.

And After That:
That Dragon, Cancer (2016) is supposedly absolutely fantastic, but really, many games on this list fit the bill, depending on what you’re looking for. The dialogue options are inspired by the Telltale games, the open world exploration is a bit like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, tales of loss set to a great soundtrack can be found in Life Is Strange… There are plenty of options!

 

If you have any suggestions or recommendations that you want to share, please leave a comment below!


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5 thoughts on “Video Games for Literature Lovers

  • July 29, 2016 at 7:16 pm
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    Hurray for this list! It can be a pain to find appealing games when you’re looking for story-driven, atmospheric things –and every other game you see is either a shooter or a completely overwhelming open world/sandbox type of thing.
    I’m rather a casual gamer myself, but out of the handful of games I do own you’ve featured almost 80% on this list. So I’m going to trust you blindly on your recommendation of the others :P
    (Btw, I also got into gaming via Portal -they’re still pretty much the most fun games I’ve ever played.)

    Reply
    • July 29, 2016 at 8:07 pm
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      (Oh dear, now I really hope that you’ll enjoy my suggestions. It’s too much responsibility!)

      I consider myself to be a casual gamer, too, but it is a medium I am increasingly interested in and I love learning more about it. Like you, I’m not very interested in most shooters unless there is something special about it (an engaging universe where your actions have serious consequences like in Fallout: New Vegas, for example).

      Reply
  • July 29, 2016 at 11:25 pm
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    You remember that scene from the first Harry Potter game where you had to sneak through the library and avoid Filch? That was and forever will be the single most stressful video game experience of my entire life.

    I will never forgive Life is Strange for making me relive that moment.

    That being said, my opinion on the games listed here (well, the ones I’ve played) is pretty much the same as yours, so I’d like to add something that you didn’t mention: replayability.

    I love choose-your-own-adventure stories. As a kid, I would get them all from the library and read them over and over. Part of what made them fun for me – apart from the idea that my actions had a direct influence on the story – was going back to see what would have happened if I had chosen differently.

    Life is Strange does not pull punches letting you know that your choices matter. I made MISTAKES. Big ones. I still feel bad about them now. Replaying this game to see where a different path might lead would be very interesting, but it would also make me feel like a remorseful time traveller: There would always be a little voice in the back of my head saying “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID.” Will changing things only make them worse? The stakes are high and there are different endings, so a second playthrough could give you a completely different story.

    The Wolf Among Us did not make me feel quite as desperate. I put in a lot of effort playing Bigby Wolf as a Hufflepuff, but the biggest “No!” for me was when I clicked a dialogue option that I intended to be gentle, but Bigby’s tone made it into something offensive. The choices here felt more subtle, and my mistakes did not make me feel so guilty that I wanted to cry. This is the exact reason why I went back to replay this game rather than Life is Strange. I wasn’t in the mood for the weight of the world on my shoulders. I just wanted to see what would happen if I just let Bigby punch everyone in the face.

    I know you didn’t list it here, but I can’t make this comment without mentioning Undertale. Undertale is another game in which your choices matter. Every encounter influences the narrative, and every choice you make will be reflected in the way your story ends. I was super nice when I played it the first time and I got extremely attached to the characters, so I need some time to mentally prepare myself before I take a crack at a different ending.

    I adore games with a good story, but this is why the ones with choices have a special place in my heart. It takes a lot of skill to make a player feel like they matter. Whether it’s Undertale (where I get complete control over the decision to be naughty or nice) or Life is Strange (where you can make big mistakes which you regret for the rest of the game because THIS IS YOUR FAULT), I admire these creators.

    That’s why I had such a strong emotional response when I replayed Emily Is Away.

    Reply
    • July 31, 2016 at 1:14 pm
      Permalink

      Oh, I forgot! If you liked The Stanley Parable – which, of course you did – you should try “Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist”. The whole game only takes about 20 minutes but it’s definitely worth the money, because it’s free.

      It was made by the director of The Stanley Parable, the director’s commentary includes the man who created/voices Rick and Morty, and the whole game itself is voiced by Simon Amstell.

      Reply
  • December 9, 2017 at 2:32 am
    Permalink

    Thank you for this great article. I would put Kentucky Route Zero in the list itself and also would absolutely find a place for Journey. But your list is still one to behold. Cheers.

    Reply

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