These are the games that ask the big questions, make us doubt ourselves, and stay in our minds long after we have completed them.
1. Spec Ops: The Line
On the surface, Spec Ops: The Line looks like any other generic shooter.
But this is a purposeful misconception, which is quickly rectified in a narrative that showcases the harsh realities of war.
Unlike most games, after an act of violence you are confronted with the consequences of your actions, sometimes in quite graphic detail; it is actively trying to make you feel responsible for the suffering you caused.
This stark and sobering realism leaves you wondering why you even enjoy playing at war, and the ending of the game is especially focused on making us question why we are drawn to violent military games.
2. Papers, Please
An entire game based on paperwork and immigration? Surprisingly, it works.
You play as an immigration officer in a totalitarian regime. It’s entirely up to you who is allowed into the country, as you can decide to let someone in even if their paperwork doesn’t check out.
But are they honest in their intentions? Are they really trying to reunite with family or is it a carefully crafted story? The game will give you plenty of tough choices, and does a great job of showing you the consequences.
3. The Last of Us
Renowned as one of the greatest games of all time, Naughty Dog offers a masterclass in storytelling in The Last of Us that leaves us questioning our own morality.
As players, we are so used to being the hero.
And until the end of The Last of Us, there is little reason to question the status quo.
This changes in the final act, when the main character, Joel, makes an objectively selfish decision with terrible consequences.
But we are left to wonder if in the same position, would we really choose any differently?
4. HellBlade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Dark, foreboding, and deeply immersive, HellBlade follows Senua as she embarks on a quest to save her lover Dillion, and descends into insanity.
You can never be sure of what is real, as Senua is constantly seeing visions and hearing voices.
It was a ground-breaking portrayal of mental illness and psychosis, and one Ninja Theory utilized expert knowledge to create.
Playing the game from her perspective gives the gamer insight into what it is like for people with the condition – and the whole experience is even more impactful with a good headset.
Soulful, with a beautiful art style and score.
Journey is an indie adventure game that has you traverse wild and desolate landscapes in order to reach a spiritual mountain, in a clear metaphor about life.
The game’s online co-op is its most famous feature, and one of Journey’s most memorable experiences.
You and your companion will remain complete strangers, traveling together in silence until you reach the end of the game.
Playing with someone else somewhere in the world, not knowing their identity as you spend hours in each other’s company is oddly poignant, and left me thinking of the game long after I had completed it.
6. What Remains of Edith Finch
One of the few games that really captures the sadness, What Remains is an atmospheric mystery game that illustrates how it feels to be haunted by the ghosts of our past.
You explore a house where each room acts as a sort of mausoleum or shrine, representing each fallen family member – through something in the room, you are transported into their last moments.
What Remains does an excellent job of helping you get to know these characters, and seeing them alive makes the house seem all the more empty when you return and remember they are gone.
It’s about love, life, and loss, and the difficult to define bittersweet melancholy of revisiting memories of those we have lost.
“What can change the nature of a man?”
The oldest game in this list (1999), Planescape: Torment is a story-driven RPG that asks a lot of philosophical questions.
The main character, The Nameless One, is immortal and endures the relentless torment of an endless life.
The story delves into complex themes like belief, regret, death, identity, betrayal, redemption; it’s hard to imagine any kids really understanding the depth of the game, but it is certainly thought-provoking.
Jonathan Blow’s original indie platformer plays cleverly on our expectations.
The premise is simple enough; you play as Tim, who sets out on a mission to rescue a princess from a monster.
What gave the game a place on this list, however, is the ingenious way it subverts this trope.
As you reach the end of the game, a time-reversal mechanic comes into play, and you see the entire story from a very different perspective.
It leaves us as the player questioning how we are influenced by the way we see ourselves and our motives, and how subjectively we view past events.
8. Detroit: Become Human
Detroit: Become Human is set in the future where machines have become more intelligent than humans, and androids are commonplace.
It is up to you to define the destiny of both mankind and androids, and every choice you make changes the narrative immensely.
The game touches on many difficult topics, but the ethical questions regarding AI and androids are definitely the most intriguing.
It will make you question what it is to be human, and whether we even have the right to decide what that means.
SOMA is a psychological science-fiction horror game that masterfully utilizes ambiguity to make you question everything around you.
Lofty ideas are explored, such as the relationship between mind and body, the inner workings of consciousness, and how who you are depending entirely on your memories.
Like a few others in this list, it discusses the ethical implications of AI and what humanity really is.
It also begs the question – what kind of existence is actually worth living?
10. Life is Strange
Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game, ostensibly about a teenage girl who discovers she has the ability to time travel.
But what the story really deals with are broader concepts, like love, cause, and effect, becoming responsible for your own decisions, and realizing there are no fundamentally right ones.
It will make you think about all the choices, small and large, that you have made in your life, and how they have led you to where you are today.
11. Metal Gear Solid 2
MGS2 has aged particularly well, and seems even more relevant today, with its focus on the issues brought on by a digital age.
For a game released in 2001, it seems to have eerily predicted the very modern issues of data surveillance, media manipulation, and the control of information through the internet.
It was a thought-provoking play-through then, but it is even more so today, as we can now marvel at how many predictions MGS2 seemed to get right.
12. Nier: Automata
Nier: Automata is another deeply philosophical game, which discusses our purpose in life and what makes us human.
The game once again follows androids in a cruel, dystopian world.
We witness them dealing with concepts like trauma, identity and trying to find compassion in a world without pity.
The game’s response to the question of what to do in a life without purpose is both beautiful and inspiring.
13. To the Moon
Don’t be fooled by the 16-bit graphics, To the Moon has a compelling and impactful story that leaves a lasting impression.
The game follows two scientists as they try to fulfill the last wish of an old man – by creating a memory of him on the moon. To do this, they must dive into his memories. As they jump from memory to memory, the old man goes from a faceless stranger to a multi-faceted, complex, and emotional character.
This touching story of love, regret, and memory carries an emotional impact that lingers and will leave you contemplating your own life and regrets.
An excellent and challenging platformer about self-worth, embracing our flaws, and the power of determination.
Celeste is a thoughtful depiction of mental illness and the difficult ongoing journey of climbing out of anxiety and depression.
You play as Madeline, a girl suffering from anxiety and low self-esteem, who wishes to climb a mountain just to feel that she has achieved something.
The game’s exploration of mental illness is really well done, as she faces many challenges on the way to self-acceptance, including an evil alter-ego; the manifestation of her illness.
15. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
An intimate look at the human cost of the most brutal war in history.
Valiant Hearts is a puzzle adventure game set in WW1, with a focus on historical accuracy and grounded storytelling; the characters feel tangible, and the game is rooted in emotion.
A distinct art style and phenomenal soundtrack elevate a heartbreaking and poignant narrative, which is sprinkled with moments of humor and levity that further humanize the characters.
The game serves as a powerful reminder of the futility of war and helps us reflect on the people that were caught up in it.
16. No Man’s Sky
I know, this game didn’t live up to its hype and ended up disappointing everyone just a little bit.
But the initial concept of endless exploration, to be the first to discover a potentially infinite amount of new worlds and lifeforms, was undeniably thought-provoking to many.
It inevitably leads us to think of our own reality and universe, and how many unknown planets and species could be out there waiting to be discovered.