Four years doesn’t sound like a long enough time to justify updating a list, but as a medium, video games move in bounding strides. Trends come and go, hardware changes, and brand-new games emerge as towering influences on the medium. When we published our initial list of the 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were only a year old. The Nintendo Switch didn’t even exist yet. When people heard “battle royale,” they thought of Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film. As such, where the prospect of keeping up is concerned, four years might as well be forever.
Some games from the 2014 iteration of our list have shifted positions, while others are absent entirely; old favorites have claimed the spots of what we treated as new classics, and vice versa. Those changes speak to the fluidity of an evolving medium as well as to the broadness of experiences to be had within it. How can the same narrow handful of games, the accepted canon that looms large over every games list, hope to represent that diversity? How can a list of the greatest ever be anything but constantly in flux?
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the previous incarnation of our 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time.
The hazy amber skyscapes of Firewatch do much to emphasize the loneliness of the game’s two major characters. Such artistic flourishes are undoubtedly intentional; while most games reduce the bonds between the characters that inhabit them to the purely functional, Firewatch hangs its hat, cloak, and even its boots on the relationship between player-controlled Henry and Delilah, his foul-mouthed co-worker who he never even sees. Both he and Delilah reside in towers that have the express purpose of watching for fires in the game’s fictional national park. And while a partnership based entirely on voice communication might seem a difficult task to pull off, the performances of the two leads elevate the emotional tenor to a level rarely seen in the narrative game genre. Steven Wright
Cart Life (2010)
Video games usually de-personalize business management. They shift the perspective upward, letting us look down on workers and customers as they go about the mechanical tasks we designate from on high. Cart Life keeps things street level, building a life sim around its business management. Its monochrome characters barely scrape by, stretching cash as far as they're able while making time to feed cats or pick daughters up from school. Though the game can easily wear you down, it also gives weight to the small victories, like selling enough to keep going. Video games have considerable power to communicate experiences to the player, and it's used most often for saving worlds and amassing collectibles and jacking cars. Cart Life is a reminder of the humanity the medium is capable of. Scaife
BioShock Infinite (2013)
BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, rather suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston
The Walking Dead (2012)
No one would’ve faulted any developer for slapping The Walking Dead name on a lackluster Left 4 Dead rip-off, and waiting for the cash to roll in—like Activision tried to do with Survival Instinct. But instead, in Telltale Games’s hands, The Walking Dead is going to go down as not only the game that shocked the entire adventure game genre out of atrophy, but as a brutal and brilliant Cormac McCarthian tale of terror and human loss unprecedented in this medium. This is a game where success is almost entirely measured in the structural integrity of a little girl’s soul, and the decisions you’ve made to keep it intact. This is the story the AMC show only dreams it’s built across its many seasons. Justin Clark
Star Fox 64 (1997)
The N64 was an awkward era in Nintendo’s history, as the company was getting its sea legs as it was transitioning into 3D gaming. And because of that weird third leg protruding obnoxiously from the center of the system’s controller, it wasn’t exactly easy to play the second title in the Star Fox series. But the controls were responsive, meaning it was at least easy for players to endure Star Fox 64’s steep learning curve. Reminiscent of games like 1985’s Space Harrier and 1995’s Panzer Dragoon, this compelling on-rails space shooter gave us anthropomorphic animals piloting what were ostensibly X-Wing starfighters in a galactic battle against Andross. The game featured local co-op, which made it even more enjoyable because of the multitude of additional explosions on screen. And though it came out toward the end of the 20th century, Star Fox 64 was very clearly inspired by cubist art, making it a perturbing and exciting departure from the vibrant and richly detailed worlds players were exploring in other Nintendo titles. Unsurprisingly, we’re still doing barrel rolls to this day, so we can thank Peppy Hare for the tip all those years ago. Jeremy Winslow
Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
Xenoblade Chronicles, like fellow 2012 JRPG revivalist Final Fantasy XIII-2 (which, like so many other games, owes a debt to the seminal Chrono Trigger), cleverly uses the thematic components of shifting destinies and humankind versus higher powers as manners by which to depict the oscillating mental states of its central characters. You won’t be likely to find a more fleshed-out batch of heroes than 18-year-old sword-swinger Shulk and his ragtag group of Mechon-battlers. Writer-director Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenogears, Xenosaga) has been in this market for quite a while, and clearly understands that a great RPG starts and ends with its cast, and how well players can identify with their specific, often extrinsic, ambitions and dreams. Monolith Soft’s ambitious epic is boundlessly beautiful, challenging, emotionally gripping, and most distinguishably of all, effortlessly transporting. Mike LeChevallier
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017)
Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is unusually sensitive as a horror game, rejecting the trend of using mental illness for cheap scares. As disturbing as the contradictory voices in the titular protagonist’s head might be, her fractured psychological state doesn’t exist to leave players feeling frightened, but to serve up a philosophical inquiry with universal resonance. Between fights with scores of mythic beings (the one-versus-all war in the Sea of Corpses is among the most ominous action spectacles in gaming history), the player learns that Senua loathes the voices within her as much as she does anything else—and that self-hatred must be recognized and managed in order for her to attain some form of peace. This dark but life-affirming parable amplifies its emotional power through mesmerizing audiovisuals, where hallucinatory whispers argue over whether you’re ever going the right way and motion-capture graphics ironically seem like reality when juxtaposed against full-motion video. Jed Pressgrove
The Witness (2016)
Jonathan Blow’s long-awaited sequel to his 2008 indie megahit Braid is a puzzle game powered by ideology, a series of conundrums designed to inspire real-life note-taking and challenge your geometric savvy. The Witness is all-consuming in its mystery, capable of eating up hours and hours of your time with its demanding and exacting logic. And while this love letter to the power of knowledge and science might come off a tad smug in its hyper-rationalist worldview, the cumulative effect of its swaths of mind-melting riddles ultimately serves as a complete portrait of its creator himself: beguiling and enigmatic but thoroughly appealing nonetheless. Wright
Kentucky Route Zero (2013)
Kentucky Route Zero has released only four of its five acts at the time of this list's publication. But even with the story unfinished, the game still feels like a cohesive whole. This is the strength of its vision, a soulful rendering of the countryside at night perfectly communicated by its lyrical text, minimalist graphics, and incredible sound design. It's a game meant to wash over you, evocative in a way that's broadly true and surreal yet also grounded, lived-in. You feel exactly the beauty it means you to feel, as well as the sadness, the desperation, and the desolation of a Rust Belt ravaged by false promises. Though you and the main character, Conway, are ostensibly passing through, the game never makes the mistake of putting players above it all—outsiders simply shaking their heads as they move along and forget. It recognizes struggle, but it's careful to emphasize above all else the quiet dignity of the lives that are working through it. Scaife
The Beatles: Rock Band (2009)
Many a documentary has done a fine job collecting the sheer facts of what the Beatles were and became over that decade, but only Harmonix has managed to do it any sort of artistic justice. Given blessing by both surviving Beatles, George Harrison's son, as well as Yoko Ono, The Beatles: Rock Band is less the band simulator or karaoke machine of the series's numbered sequels than a meticulous Technicolor tone poem. It gives players the ability to embody the simple brilliance of the music, to stand awestruck at the band's achievements, and to bask in the imagery that the music creates. No interview has ever been able to speak truth to the joy of what this band's music is capable of than to physically play a guitar while the reincarnated vision of John Lennon stands in an elysian field imploring Prudence to come out to play. This is the pinnacle of the music game genre. Clark