More than any other artistic medium, video games are constantly reinventing themselves. Every week, developers release a new game with its own unique controls, goals, and interface.
The movie experience, on the other hand, is one-size-fits-all; if you know how to watch Alice make her way through Wonderland, and you’ll do just fine watching Freddy slash his way through Elm Street. But as gamers know, you can log a hundred hours in a Final Fantasy and still need just as many hours to learn how to play Civilization 5.
Though every release is unique on some level, a few games changed the landscape so drastically—or even built the landscape themselves—that they’ve become icons. Here are ten of those legendary video games that, for better or worse, changed how games are played.
10 The Stanley Parable
Anyone who has played more than ten minutes of The Stanley Parable knows why this game found its way on this list. The game, more commonly referred to as an interactive drama, was written by the ever-interesting William Pugh, and it rapidly inspired a series of indie “non-game” games.
The Stanley Parable sees players as Stanley, an ostensibly humdrum office worker, who suddenly finds his life upended in a major metaphysical way. The game begins with a narrator that explains everything happening to Stanley at his office, but players are quickly allowed to act in defiance of the narration.
This leads to a grapple for control between player and narrator, and then…nothing you would ever expect. Players end up behind the scenes of the game itself, inside an entirely different game (no spoilers here), and eventually confront an existential crisis. This game is about as far from Pong as it gets.
SimCity invented a genre. More than that, SimCity invented a meta-genre that incorporates multiple new game styles. Even more than that, SimCity fundamentally changed how people thought about video games.
Every video game that relies on city-building (or base-building, fort-building, etc.) owes its existence to SimCity. Designed by Will Wright, SimCity actually came about while Wright was developing another game. Wright found that designing the game’s levels could be more fun than navigating through them. So, he built a game entirely about building levels.
Aside from the building aspect, SimCity also inspired the original “non-games,” also known as “software toys,” that gave the players the tools to create their own experience rather than force them through pre-made objectives. The surprising commercial success of SimCity and its counterparts led to many video games companies shifting their goals from strictly action-shooter-based narratives.
If you have heard of P.T. at all, you’ve probably heard A. how terrifying it is, and B. how much truly baffling content its creator, the legendary Hideo Kojima, decided to pack into its tiny shell.
The essential premise of P.T. is that players find themselves in a hallway, and no matter how many times they find the exit, they always find themselves back in the same hallway. With every attempt, new iterations of the hallway become more and more surreal and terrifying until, well, there is not much of an ending at all.
P.T.’s “bottle-episode” meets “never-ending psychological prison” mechanic has since become the blueprint for scores of modern horror games. Even horror games that don’t adhere to the P.T. formula at their core now frequently include P.T. segments, brief slices of the inescapable, personalized hell that P.T. popularized.
7 Grand Theft Auto III
Open world games, also known as sandbox games, have existed almost as long as video games themselves. Grand Theft Auto III did not invent the sandbox. It did, however, create a near-ubiquitous standard for the genre that most popular open-world games have since utilized.
Essentially, Grand Theft Auto III combined its city neighborhood open world with simulations that act independently from the game’s narrative. This mixture led to what designers call emergent gameplay—events and interactions in the game’s setting that emerge “on their own” and can therefore surprise the player.
For example, the traffic in GTA III, both pedestrian and vehicular, moves around in accordance with basic traffic laws and behaviors. The player, then, can interact with the traffic at any point along their journey, creating near-limitless variations on what that interaction may entail and where.
6 Assassin’s Creed
While we’re on the subject of open worlds: have you ever noticed that a surprising number of open-world games these days play almost identically? Similar open worlds, sandbox enemies and allies, a combination of crouch-based sneaking in tall grass and regular movement outside it, parkouring up cliffs, sidling along walls, attacking enemies from ledges, and the way the map is divided into sections that each have their own “tower” that players climb to learn about that section?
We have the Assassin’s Creed series’ many innovations to thank for that. Just to name a few games that iterated on the AC formula: Shadow of Mordor & Shadow of War, Horizon: Zero Dawn, the Arkham Trilogy, Ghost of Tsushima, and Spider-Man PS4 & its spinoff.
EverQuest is the MMO. All modern MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games, owe their existence to EverQuest.
Though other games (most of which were shared text-based adventures at the time) had dabbled in large-scale multiplayer games online, it wasn’t until EverQuest’s 1999 release that the MMO genre was truly born.
Every basic mechanic you find in almost every modern MMO began with EverQuest; the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired classes and numeric combat, the use of an open world, the combination of player-vs-player and player-vs-environment action, guild systems, and cooperatives raids—all of them stem from EverQuest.
4 Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat was not the first fighting game, nor the genre’s first breakout success. Ironically, the biggest ways Mortal Kombat changed video games had little to do with its actual gameplay. In fact, Mortal Kombat revolutionized almost everything except how we fight. Namely, our fascination with hidden characters and levels and what age group can buy a given game.
Though Street Fighter beat Mortal Kombat to the (literal) punch, MK took Street Fighter’s mechanics and made them twice as interesting. For one, MK created the fighter genre’s reliance on hidden-button combos, including the series’ trademark violent, explosive finishing moves. It also made hidden levels and characters, unlockable only by strict and often surprise conditions, the norm for fighter endgames.
Lastly, more than any other game, MK led to establishing the ESRB, the organization that rates and sorts games into different age levels. Due to panicked parents watching their kids deal bloody damage to each other in MK, the Senate called a hearing in 1993 to address violence in video games. Its result was, for better or worse, the ESRB, and also why this writer, when they were ten, was unable to buy their own copy of Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
The reason Doom ranks so highly on this list may surprise some fans. It’s not for almost single-handedly cementing what it means to be a 3-D shooter because Wolfenstein 3D also deserves a lion’s (or wolf’s) share of that accolade. Instead, the original Doom changed games for two completely separate reasons: local multiplayer and modding.
Doom allowed players to link via local area networks and fight each other, a first for 3-D shooters. Nowadays, many shooters are often built around these “death-matches” more than their single-player stories.
Doom’s creators also allowed the source code for the game’s engine, the appropriately named Doom Engine, to be used publicly. Because of this charity, players were able to design their own Doom levels on top of the game’s existing levels. These days, the practice has become common, referred to as modding.
2 Super Mario 64
3-D platformers exist because of Super Mario 64. It is that simple. In designing SM64, the iconic Shigeru Miyamoto completely set the standard for 3-D platform games, a standard that, even 25 years later, has yet to be seriously broken.
Miyamoto developed the game before 3-D game systems had even been properly released. Using systems built exclusively for 2-D gaming, he had to conceive of and design a 3-D world and then an entirely new control system so players could navigate that world.
The game’s single biggest contribution to how we play games is its invention of a player-controlled, 360-degree analog camera. The genius invention allows players to move the camera to whatever angle they choose, making the environment seem truly 3-D.
1 The Legend of Zelda
Saved games. Need we say more? Prior to the release of The Legend of Zelda, video games had to be beaten in one sitting, or players had to start from certain checkpoints through the use of unlockable cheat codes. After Zelda, which included its own battery-powered RAM in the game cartridge itself, players could now record their progress in a game and return to the same spot whenever they chose to.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the effect that saving had on the video game industry. More than any other single innovation, the ability to save games led to designers shifting away from one-and-done, arcade-style games to longer, story-driven experiences.
Because of this, The Legend of Zelda may be the most influential game of all time. And that’s not even including the game’s own merit, which is impressive, especially considering its place on virtually every “best-of” list in existence.