There was a period of time, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, when many game critics and analysts speculated that PC gaming was on its last legs. They argued that the platform had become a creative backwater, and would soon be completely overtaken by modern consoles thanks to their burgeoning, easy-to-use online capabilities.
Those who kept the faith through those troubled times knew the truth of the matter. PCs have flexibility, moddability and power unavailable in consoles. As a result, PC gaming is able quickly pivot to serve its players.
In the past 15 years, digital distribution has made it easier for creators to sell games directly to players, no longer relying on publishing deals. More and better development tools have made the creative process more accessible than ever before. This combination has led to an era of abundance. In 2017 some 7,672 games were released on Steam alone. That’s roughly 21 games per day.
Now most of the biggest new games (Minecraft) and genres (battle royale) start their lives on PC, and that seems unlikely to change.
Unlike our other Essentials lists, this one covers a catalog that’s spread across multiple decades. And so this is a starting point. We’ll be adding new games and classics with each update. If you’re new to the space, consider this your guide to the best of the best, and a tutorial on how to uncover experiences that simply can’t be had on any other platform. And for the rest of us, share your thoughts on potential future entries.
RETURN OF THE OBRA DINN
Lucas Pope’s reputation soared in 2013 on the back of Papers, Please!, an elegant exploration of the human realities of modern fascism neatly bound in a pixelated point-and-click style chapbook of a game. Set along a border crossing at the fictional country of Arstotzka, it was presciently published years before modern fascism began to intrude into the daily news cycle of the United States. It is no less relevant today and, like all the games on this list, is best experienced on PC.
The Return of the Obra Dinn, however, is a different animal entirely. It’s also, mercifully, somewhat more playful. From our review:
Just like an old-fashioned murder story, Return of the Obra Dinn poses a complex mystery, layered with personalities, motives, secrets and lies. But it supercharges whodunit conventions by infusing misdirection into every nook and cranny of its intricate, gorgeous murder scenes.
The story is set aboard an early 19th century merchant ship that shows up in port five years after it was reported missing, presumed lost at sea. The ship is bereft of human life. As an insurance agent, my job is to board the ship and figure out what happened. I’m soon confronted with evidence of a voyage gone awry. Skeletons, exploded cannon and destroyed rigging all add up to … what?
Obra Dinn features a monochromatic art style inspired by early Macintosh games. But it’s also fully three-dimensional. As the player, you inhabit an insurance adjuster from the Age of Sail who gains limited control over time and space. The game demands attention to detail and cleverness on the part of the player, while delighting them at every turn with a story and design that gradually reveals itself with surprise bursts of sound and violence.
In his glowing review, our Colin Campbell concluded that Obra Dinn “isn’t merely a great game, it’s the work of an intense and creative intelligence.” I’m inclined to agree.
Get it here: Steam | GOG | Humble
The original Half-Life tells the story of the MIT-educated theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman and a trans-dimensional rift that may someday kill us all. As far as PC shooters go, Half-Life represents an inflection point for the entire genre, threading a nearly uninterrupted narrative throughline throughout a seamless and carefully paced action spectacle.
The game has set the tone for AAA development for two decades. Every time I hear people complain about a missing or lackluster campaign in a modern multiplayer title, at some level I also hear the voice of someone who is secretly still frustrated that there’s still no Half-Life 3 or a proper conclusion to the episodic expansion of Half-Life 2.
Of course, including Half-Life in a list of the very best PC games, both new and old, is also sort of a hack. It’s not just the game itself that launched a thousand developers’ ships, but the ability to mod that game as well. On ModDB alone there’s over 871 mods, from tiny tweaks to total conversions. The creative energy unleashed by Half-Life, and the engines that Valve built to support its sequels, directly led to the creation of games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Portal and Team Fortress 2. Without that flurry of activity, one could argue, there might not even be a Steam marketplace at all.
However you slice it, if not for Mr. Freeman, the PC gaming scene would look a lot different than it does today.
While the gameplay itself more than holds up, the look and feel of the original leaves something to be desired. Thankfully, the team at Crowbar Collective — themselves a bunch of modders — have created Black Mesa. It’s not simply a remaster of the original game but also an effort to redesign Half-Life’s final, troubled levels featuring jumping puzzles on the alien planet Xen.
The best way to play Valve’s breakout game today is Black Mesa, a game not made by Valve.
Get Half-Life here: Steam
Get Black Mesa here: Steam
BEST GAMES ON PC
Before there was such a thing as a first-person shooter, there was Doom. For years after its release in 1993, other FPS titles were simply referred to as “Doom clones.” It’s fitting, then, that one of the best first-person shooters of the last decade is the 2016 reboot of the franchise, called simply Doom.
The reboot was so good, in fact, that it was Polygon’s game of the year in 2016. From our GOTY story, written by editor-in-chief Chris Grant:
Doom is fast. When I first played it, I remember thinking that it actually seemed too fast; this is in part an illusion, since the game sets you free in a small chamber before introducing you to the game’s massive outdoor environments. But it’s also a statement: The game lets you know that things are going to be different. […]
Doom had the audacity to reject years of common wisdom, decades of increased expectations and generations of first-person brinksmanship to reach back to the beginning, to reintroduce the shooter that started it all.
Download and install it today, of course, and you’ll benefit from the increased computing power of modern GPUs, same as with The Witcher 3 above. But you’ll also be playing what many consider to be the quintessential modern FPS, and gearing up for the sequel, Doom Eternal, coming soon.
Get it here: Steam | Amazon | Fanatical | Green Man Gaming
The FPS genre has grown to become much more than single-player experiences, and there’s no better example of a modern multiplayer shooter than Overwatch.
In Overwatch, players battle it out in small groups across multiple game modes from simple capture-the-flag to more seasonal favorites such as Lúcioball, a more intimate three-versus-three mode loosely based on soccer. The action is buoyed by consistent world-building from developer Blizzard Entertainment, which takes the form of everything from short animated films to comic books.
Not only is the title an excellent entree into the world of competitive esports, it’s also a game that fits just about any play style. Whether you’re looking for long-range sniping or nearly stationary point defense, there’s a character class for everyone.