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The Citizen Kanes of videogames

Half-Life

Released 1998

Pioneered: Strong story experienced entirely from a first-person viewpoint, faceless main character, headcrab crowbar-smashing, even easier and more comprehensive modification by users than introduced by Doom.

Influenced: System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Call of Duty and every other story-intensive, mostly cutscene-free FPS.

Why it qualifies: Arguably the single most beloved PC game ever created, Half-Life took a genre known mainly for mindless violence and online competition and turned it into a strong vehicle for storytelling. Putting players into the shoes of Gordon Freeman – a character who’s never seen or heard – it threw players into the center of a sprawling, near-seamless research complex that was quickly overrun by extradimensional horrors and military black-ops squads. And as the world falls apart around you, the game tells the story entirely through interactive events that unfold around your first-person perspective; there’s no pausing for cutscenes here.

As beloved as its single-player campaign is, Half-Life’s real strength was in the ability it gave users to reshape the game to their liking, creating not only new levels and game types, but entirely new games. Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic were perfect examples, and proved so popular that Valve actually published them as official add-ons. The game was nothing short of revolutionary, ushering in a new age of story-centric shooters and user-created content that permanently changed the topography of the PC game industry.


The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Released 1998

Pioneered: Lock-on targeting during combat, fishing minigames, at-will horseback riding, free-roaming wilderness exploration combined with puzzle-filled dungeon delving.

Influenced: Dark Cloud, Sonic Adventure, Shadow of the Colossus, Fable, Grand Theft Auto III, Darksiders.

Why it qualifies: Like Citizen Kane, Ocarina of Time wasn’t so much a pioneer as it was able to expertly combine aspects of other games into an epic whole. It gave players a vast, beautiful landscape in which to run free (often on horseback), filled it with interesting characters to meet and enemies to kill, and then tacked on puzzle-centric forests, caves and dungeons whose emphasis on 3D jumping and climbing echoed Tomb Raider.

Ocarina of Time was also one of the first free-range, RPG-style games to feature a fairly badass fishing minigame. More importantly, it introduced the concept of using “Z-targeting” to lock the camera onto individual enemies, something that’s since become an indispensible part of combat in countless 3D games. Even so, its influence isn’t quite as deeply felt as some of the other games on this list, although as a technical masterpiece that challenged perceptions of what games could be (on the N64, at least), Ocarina of Time is an all-time great.


Metal Gear Solid

Released 1998

Pioneered: Radar-driven stealth gameplay; extensive voice acting, expressive character portraits and in-game cutscenes used to elicit emotional responses; hiding under boxes.

Influenced: Splinter Cell, WinBack, Sly Cooper, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, every action game ever to feature a “sneak” mode or an irritating mandatory stealth segment.

Why it qualifies: In the hype that led up to the first reveal of Metal Gear Solid, there was a lot of speculation about exactly what kind of game it would be – a top-down stealth adventure? A Tomb Raider-style third-person adventure? – and in the end, most of the speculation proved flat-out wrong. Metal Gear Solid was unlike anything to come before, a third-person stealth epic that gave players total awareness of their surroundings and invited them to find creative ways to sneak past, confound and kill the many guards and traps that lay in wait throughout the Shadow Moses military complex.

At the same time, it pioneered a few new storytelling techniques, among them the lengthy Codec conversations that, for better or worse, have become a staple of the series, and which focused on hand-drawn facial expressions and top-notch voice acting to convey the narrative. It was also one of the earliest games to offer up a character for players to emotionally connect with – the sometimes-endearing, sometimes-infuriating Meryl Silverburgh – and to decide the fate of, depending on their tolerance for button-mashing “torture.” It’s a classic of the 32-bit era, but more than that, it’s a bold attempt to use games to tell a movie-level story with techniques that only games can take advantage of.


Devil May Cry

Released 2001

Pioneered: A slick combination of jumping-centric exploration, wickedly fast hack-and-slash combat, balletic gunplay, moody environments and RPG-style progression. Also, spiders made of lava.

Influenced: God of War, Sly Cooper, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence.

Why it qualifies: There were action games on the PS2 before the advent of Devil May Cry, but none of them really mattered. Expertly combining the best elements of Castlevania, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and assorted brawlers, DMC created one of the wildest action experiences ever attempted on a console.

It was also an over-the-top mess, throwing together John Woo-style gunplay, brutal hack-and-slash and plenty of jumping puzzles. But with its sweeping Gothic architecture, fluid animation and colorful, creative monsters, it was an unabashedly pretty mess, and it came together beautifully. It was so relentlessly fun that its formula was rapidly imitated by nearly every PS2/Xbox-era hack-and-slasher worth a damn, many of which went on to be much better games than DMC’s own middling sequels.


Grand Theft Auto III

Released 2001

Pioneered: Anarchic, no-holds-barred free-roaming gameplay; carjacking; realistic clockwork cities filled with secrets and murderable pedestrians; in-game radio stations; media outrage.

Influenced: True Crime: Streets of L.A., Spider-Man 2, Mercenaries, The Godfather, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Saints Row, inFamous, Prototype, Red Faction: Guerrilla and nearly every other “sandbox” game made since its release.

Why it qualifies: If Tomb Raider was when gaming hit puberty, GTA III was its entry into adulthood. And if any game on this list is deserving of "Citizen Kane" status - in that it was hugely popular, hugely influential, unlike anything to come before and changed perceptions of what a game could and should be - it's this one. Aside from spawning legions of imitators and frightening untold scores of would-be culture critics, it handed players unheard-of freedom in a realistic, (relatively) consequence-free environment and said, “here, go nuts.” For some of us, it was everything we’d ever hoped games would someday offer.

Like too many other games of its time, GTA III hasn’t aged so well. Its lock-on targeting is terrible, its animation is choppy, its graphics (which were never that great to begin with) are ugly and its city is filled with fog and blur effects. But start to play it for more than a few minutes, and it’s just as captivating as it ever was. For better or worse, GTA III was a major turning point for the industry, and it’s difficult to think of a game that’s proven more important or influential in the years since 2001.


Silent Hill 2

Released 2001

Pioneered: Moody use of fog, darkness and ambient sound to create an atmosphere of dread, heavy reliance on high-end graphics and characters’ facial expressions to convey drama with more than words, intentional visual graininess, sexy nurses, Pyramid Head.

Influenced: Siren, Fatal Frame, Kuon, Cursed Mountain.

Why it qualifies: From a gameplay standpoint, Silent Hill 2 isn’t much to write home about – the combat is slow and clunky, the monsters are relatively few and far between and the town itself is confined to the same rigid limitations (read: locked doors) that made 32-bit survival-horror games feel linear and restrictive. But while it doesn’t offer a whole lot for players who like to skip cutscenes and just shoot things, there are some excellent reasons why Silent Hill 2 is considered by many to be a groundbreaking work of art.

Telling a surprisingly mature story about James Sunderland, a man who receives a letter from his dead wife (whom we later learn he euthanized), Silent Hill 2 used fog, darkness and creepy ambient sounds to created an overwhelming sense of fear and dread. Unlike Resident Evil and its cheap scares, Silent Hill 2 built up a terror of the unseen in everyone who played it. Every industrial thud, every creak, every sound like metal scraping against concrete could herald death around the next corner… or it could just be nothing. You could never quite be sure with SH2, and so when the monsters finally did appear – often with plenty of warning – it didn’t so much cause a sudden release of your fear as it built up speculation about what other, even worse thing might be hiding in the darkness next. Silent Hill 2 is also notable in that it was one of the first games to really focus on the rendered faces of its characters, working the PS2’s much-hyped “Emotion Engine” to help players understand not just what was going on, but how the characters felt about it.


Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Released 2003

Pioneered: Semi-open-ended Western RPGs disguised as fully 3D quasi-action games.

Influenced: Mass Effect, InFamous, Fable, Fallout 3, nearly every post-2003 game to feature game-altering moral choices.

Why it qualifies: While some might credit KOTOR as birthing the idea of moral choices in games, the truth is that it wasn’t even close to being the first. In fact, everything it did was an evolution of earlier games by BioWare and Black Isle, including Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, the Fallout series and Planescape: Torment. The difference is that KOTOR was able to couch its gameplay and plot-twisting decisions in an appealing 3D package, give its turn-based combat an action feel and wrap the whole experience up in what’s probably the best-loved take on Star Wars in the last 10 years.

So while its less-flashy PC predecessors might have already blazed the trail for KOTOR, it did what they couldn’t: achieve mainstream popularity, thereby ensuring scores of imitators and the mention of its name every time a game tries to inject good/evil decisions into its gameplay. Like Ocarina of Time, it didn’t so much break new ground as it combined things that had already been done into something smart and sprawling and new. Add one of the best game-story plot twists ever, and its status as an influential classic is undeniable.


Half-Life 2

Released 2004

Pioneered: Realistic physics that were central to gameplay, a story told mainly through secondary characters reacting to the player, well-developed AI partner who helped players connect emotionally with the world rather than being a liability.

Influenced: Dead Space, BioShock, Left 4 Dead, Grand Theft Auto IV.

Why it qualifies: Like Half-Life before it, Half-Life 2 is a fantastic, innovative shooter that tells its story entirely from a first-person perspective, never showing protagonist Gordon Freeman except on the front of its box. More notably, however, it took existing concepts like ragdoll physics – which until then had been used mainly to make enemies crumple in a “realistic” fashion – and made it central to gameplay, giving players a gravity gun that could be used to grab, manipulate or weaponize random objects scattered throughout the world.

It also introduced Alyx Vance, possibly the first computer-controlled sidekick to not be an irritating pain in everyone’s ass. Far from it, in fact – Alyx was helpful, reliable and charming enough for players to relate to her, and in more than a few instances develop a crush on her. She became so popular, in fact, that when press materials for Half-Life 2: Episode Two hinted that she might end up dead, fans went a little berserk. Creating a secondary character as universally beloved as Alyx is no small feat, from a storytelling or a gameplay standpoint, and if nothing else, Half-Life 2 deserves recognition for pulling off something that a lot of other games still fail at.


Resident Evil 4

Released 2005

Pioneered: Off-center, over-the-shoulder view; survival-horror as fast, bloody action instead of plodding exploration with cheap scares.

Influenced: Gears of War, Miami Vice, Alone in the Dark, Grand Theft Auto IV, inFamous, Dead Space, Silent Hill: Homecoming.

Why it qualifies: By the time Silent Hill 2 was released, the Resident Evil series was practically dead. Code: Veronica was mired in 32-bit design ideas and cheaper scares than ever, and fans had moved on to moodier, more genuinely frightening fare. Obviously, something drastic had to be done, and that something was to reinvent Resident Evil – and by extension the survival-horror genre – as a balls-out crazy intense experience that blended lots of big guns with playable cutscenes, near constant action and genuinely terrifying enemies that wielded chainsaws, regenerated wounds and chanted in creepy whispers as they shuffled toward you.

The end result completely changed ideas of how games could convey horror. You didn’t have to be a slow, stumbling writer to be scared – you could be a buff, overpowered military spook and still be in a near-constant state of pants-shitting fear. And at that, Resident Evil 4 almost single-handedly changed the way third-person games handled shooting, introducing smooth, over-the-shoulder aiming that in turn led to grisly 3PSes like Gears of War and Dead Space. Its sequel might have just been more of the same, but RE4 was revolutionary enough to make us excited for the series’ next reinvention.


Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Released 2007

Pioneered: Innovative storytelling techniques that used multiple characters and perspectives, RPG-style multiplayer progression.

Influenced: Call of Duty: World at War, Resistance 2, Killzone 2, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.

Why it qualifies: Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer, with its ranking system and the perks and abilities that advancement confers, was rapidly copied by just about every multiplayer shooter worth a damn, thereby neatly ticking off the “influential” box. But Call of Duty 4 did something else that hasn’t really been aped, something that’s rare, wonderfully creative and at times deeply disturbing: it told its story from multiple viewpoints, giving players a number of different perspectives on an entirely fictional war.

Aside from the main characters, SAS operative “Soap” MacTavish and American Marine Sgt. Paul Jackson, you’ll also play as the doomed president of an unnamed Middle Eastern nation as he’s hauled off to be publicly executed; as Soap’s grizzled commander, Capt. Price, in one of the most tense, stealth-heavy flashback sequences ever created; and – in the game’s most paradoxically chilling sequence – as the gunner of a flying gunship, who sees enemy combatants (assuming they even are combatants) as little more than glowing, running stick-figures on a thermal-imaging screen before he blows them away. All these differing perspectives add up to a surprisingly riveting and involving story, and if you’re scoffing at CoD4’s inclusion right now, we can only guess it’s because you haven’t played through it yet.

Jul 23, 2009


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254 comments

  • LunarMoon - November 6, 2010 4:29 p.m.

    I totally believe that video games are art but some things need to be said: If this is the best that the video game world will ever offer than that’s a really depressing thought. I think that those of us who want an engrossing and emotionally involving plot in our video games should stop patting developers on the back and start demanding it, since if there’s no market demand for a particular product than there’s absolutely no reason for the producer’s to risk their livelihood’s attempting to create the next Brave New World. It would be shame if the video game world began to stagnate and fail to live up to its potential due to the contentment of its patrons. Take comic books for example. Watchmen was produced because Alan Moore was discontent with the potential of the comic medium in comparison to where it was. Why can’t the same happen for video games?
  • Ganonpork - October 9, 2010 9:51 a.m.

    XD no more heroes pioneered awesome
  • Gurkog - October 8, 2010 5:46 a.m.

    I don't have any idea about the originality of Ninja Gaiden for the NES and it probably didn't pioneer anything, but imo no later side scrolling 8-bit game was better...and the cut scenes were HOT for the period. Oh, it was also the first action game I played that had a real feeling of a developing story. It has been 20 years since I played it so my rose-colored glasses might be blinding me to the truth.
  • mrmorozov987 - September 1, 2010 1:06 a.m.

    Okay, I retract what I said about the first Modern Warfare. After seeing popular multiplayer games released before it, COD4's multiplayer is actually a big step forward. Sorry for being a complete ass and making a comment about a game I hadn't played at all. The second one is still less good. (?)
  • mrmorozov987 - May 29, 2010 10:21 p.m.

    While I'm glad to see titles like Resident Evil 4 and Grand Theft Auto III here, I'm a little disappointed that Gran Turismo (for introducing realistic car physics and serious car customization, all while remaining accessible to newcomers). isn't on here. Also, Call of Duty 4? It's a great game, but it didn't really pioneer anything. Also, they should update this list to include Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (if you've seen 5 seconds of it, you know why it should be here).
  • SandroTheMaster - September 17, 2009 10:54 p.m.

    I know I'm late to the party but... a lot of these "pioneering" actually started in PC games. The worst case is Grand Theft Auto 3, which is claimed to influence Elder Scrolls 4. Oblivion was mostly influenced by Morrowind (AKA, Elder Scrolls 3)! Actually, it is more or less a Morrowind lite, which was a refinement upon Daggerfall (guess what, Elder Scrolls 2!). And all free-roaming games out there owes everything to Wizardry and Might & Magic, years before any console RPG considered gamers smart enough to handle derailing from the plot.
  • deora2dude - August 2, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    WHERE. IS. PORTAL.
  • deathrebellion - July 30, 2009 10:18 p.m.

    my two most fav games r on dis list ^^ and i seriously don't think that Tomb Raider wuz the cause of DMC , Assassins Creed and Mirrors Edge
  • CrazedPenguin - July 29, 2009 11:35 a.m.

    Great read, I always enjoy your articles :) All this talk of genre changing and defining titles has made me strangely excited for HEavy Rain.
  • MarchIntoTheSea - July 28, 2009 9:16 p.m.

    And what about Ico? Mass Effect should be here too. It did come after kotor but it does the job so much better. And the dialogue is revolutionary while 2 is gonna be better
  • AscendedArsehole - July 28, 2009 2:35 p.m.

    Hey GR, ever heard of Deus Ex? Give it a go, it's a great game with deep level design that I have not seen elsewhere.
  • purple_omlet - July 27, 2009 9:13 a.m.

    wait a minute, i just realized, after a 4 hour okami session, that there is not okami on this list! sure, not many people have played it, but it's a god damn masterpeice! the art style, the ingenious story line, and the controls just show what they Ps2 was made for. and as an eitor for GR, i thought you had an obligation to get the okami name out even more, like a video game pimp...
  • purple_omlet - July 27, 2009 9:04 a.m.

    like the list, but don't care for devil may cry to much, my brother likes it, but by the time i actually got the game i was way to into god of war 2. @ludovix: gran tourismo sucks ass.
  • solsunforge - July 27, 2009 3:33 a.m.

    pardon the interuption but all of you halo fanboys out there who think halo introduced any new concepts to videogames on for fps or storywise should know your 100% incorrect. It was not the first to introduce gernades it wasnt the first to introduce coop for 4 players. Ever heard of unreal tournament? Ever hear of red faction? Well the 2nd red faction introduced 4 player coop. I may even be incorect in that one(as far as consoles). What about goldeneye for the n64. I mean come on halo doesnt even have that great of story. halo 3 is about a whole 5 hours long and is complete trash. Dont get me wrong halo is a fun game and i played it to completion a few times but its not even a top 10 shooter. Even the original gauntlet had coop play so learn something about what you like before you talk or go play some mario party or dynasty warriors and sit down.
  • dweller - July 27, 2009 1:26 a.m.

    I'm glad Planescape: Torment was mentioned on this list. One of my all time fav RPGs ever.
  • Riq12 - July 26, 2009 5:32 p.m.

    What about Quake I ?!?
  • honjuden - July 26, 2009 8:16 a.m.

    Such a large list and no Baldur's Gate to be found. Baldur's Gate did things that were unprecedented for western rpgs.
  • JamesT - July 25, 2009 8:42 p.m.

    Only one of the DMC sequels was "middling". Hell, number 3 was in some ways better than the first.
  • skyguy343 - July 25, 2009 8:34 p.m.

    no Ico or SotC but the ingenuity of this article prevents it from bring a fail. still, moar SotC. way to go mikel
  • drewthaler - July 25, 2009 4:47 p.m.

    This list doesn't include Ico or Shadow of the Colossus? For shame. Those two are probably the closest parallels to Citizen Kane that exist. Critically acclaimed, loved by game designers, massively influential, but not a great success with the public. They defied convention and showed that there were ways of storytelling that had never been seen before. And they had some really ground-breaking technical achievements which influenced the rest of the gaming world dramatically - HDR bloom, dynamic exposure, realistic fur, etc.

Showing 1-20 of 254 comments

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