As with the board games, this isn't a "favorites" list but rather examples of mechanics I found unique and interesting. It's stuff I hadn't seen anything else quite like before, or at least not as well executed. This was a trickier task than with board games because video games have a much wider range of styles and ways you interact with them. I found that it was tough to select examples of completely never-before-seen mechanics, so for each I also talk about some other relevant examples.
Disclaimer: despite having spent my afternoon writing about video games, I'm not actually much of a gamer and almost anyone is likely more qualified than I to write this post. I tend to be complete crap at games. Multiplayer competitive games and fine motor control/reflex-oriented games like first-person shooters are generally futile endeavors, so I tend towards slower, single-player puzzle-adventure-type things. As a result all but one of these games have some sort of puzzle component, so it's probably not as holistic a list as it could be. I don't spend much time at all playing games or researching new ones so it's entirely possible that none of these are unique at all and there are dozens of better examples. Please do share if so!
Windows, Xbox One, PS4 (releasing Oct 15)
In Outer Wilds, you're the newest astronaut of your alien tribe's fledgling duct-tape-and-wood-planks-style space program. When the game begins, you get access to your very own rickety spaceship which you can use to fly anywhere in the solar system. The whole game world exists in a big always-on physics simulation with simplified gravity and orbital mechanics - you see a moon orbit closely overhead from the home world, and it turns out you can get yourself there and walk around on that surface in under a minute. Everything is scaled down, so the gravity of passing planets noticeably affects objects on the planet surface.
There are a handful of other planets and objects in the solar system you can fly to, and as you explore you learn about the history of the solar system and the events that lead to the game's beginning. There's no transition between walking around and flying your ship, you just take off and are seamlessly in orbit within seconds. On the really small planets, your ship can get ripped off the surface if something with stronger gravity passes too close, and you have to be careful when landing on the innermost planet or you'll get sucked into the sun's much stronger gravity.
After 22 minutes the sun explodes, obliterating you and everything else. Not to worry - you're in a time loop, and after the actions you took flash before your eyes you gasp awake again, in the exact same way as the game started. Your ship remembers everything you learn from cycle to cycle, but almost nobody else is aware. Your task is to incrementally explore the solar system in 22-minute bursts to figure out why you're in a time loop and if it can be stopped. The time loop is a fascinating mechanic that I've never experienced before, and without revealing too much some of the puzzles utilize it in even more interesting and surprising ways. After playing this I'm interested to try other games that use a similar mechanic like Minit and The Sexy Brutale.
While 22 minutes sounds short, the world is designed such that you should not need more to access anything important. You do need to formulate a plan of attack to get something complicated done away from the home planet, but there are no consequences for failing to execute or just aimlessly exploring - you'll just eventually have to fly back if you didn't finish something. I usually end up killing myself one way or another well before the time is up, so actually surviving until the sun explodes feels like an accomplishment. The game only saves each time you die, so if you have learned something substantial you have to either wait out the loop or kill yourself before you can quit.
That alright just one more cycle voice in the back of my head is dangerous. I'm waiting until I finish to make a final judgement, but about ten hours in this already might be my favorite game I've ever played.
When I picked this up I knew about the (much simplified) KSP-esque physics and spaceflight elements, but had no idea about the puzzle aspect. This game feels what you get if you implement Myst inside of Kerbal Space Program.
The first three games of the Myst series has always been right at the top of my "all-time favorites" list. In these games, the world itself is the puzzle and you're encouraged to steep yourself in the world building and culture they create in order to understand how to navigate the solutions. The closest analogue here to me is Myst 2: Riven.
Whereas Myst was a series of related puzzles, Riven really is just one huge world-sized puzzle, with sub-steps to solve spread across five islands. Outer Wilds appears much the same actually, swapping islands for planets. In both, you're dropped into a rich world with little to no instruction, and you discover the plot through exploration. In both, the entire world is available to you immediately, though some of it you may need to figure out how to access first. In both, the invented cultures of their respective universes are thoroughly imagined and take a leading role in world design and puzzle integration, and the plot itself. This urges the player to try to understand and learn about the world-building in order to succeed instead of just providing a thin backdrop or a plot unrelated to the puzzles.
Outer Wilds thankfully isn't as hard as Riven was designed to be, and you're given a hint on the first day for what to explore first. I ignored that on my first launch, though. When I first got to space I just pointed at the coolest-looking thing in the sky and went there instead (and died), and I love that the game didn't have a problem with that. The goal is to learn something on each run, dying is pretty inconsequential. I love that style of open-ended puzzle design where the world itself provides the challenge and you learn how it works through exploration and experimentation, instead of being punished for it.
I love how this game blends aesthetics, too. Your home tribe and alien buddies are super adorable, and the folk music backdrop, colorful art style, and quirky sense of humor gives everything a very warm and cozy feeling. The very first thing you can do upon opening your eyes is roast marshmallows or doze off at a campfire. The environment, though, can also be terrifying. There are no jump scares, but there is absolutely an existential horror element. Even though I've made the mistake at least a dozen times I don't think I'll ever get used to falling through the black hole.
It didn't quite make this list, but another game I've highly enjoyed that does this well is Subnautica. This is a base-building game that takes place almost entirely underwater in a lushly populated alien ocean, and exploring the depths of that world in your tiny little submarine can really create a feeling of true terror. You slowly get comfortable traversing deeper and deeper parts, but there's always a vast unknown waiting for you next.
Windows, Linux, OS X, Switch, PS4, Vita, iOS, Xbox One
Crypt of the NecroDancer is actually a pretty standard roguelike game that adds one twist: each key you tap has to be in time to the beat. If you want to move squares or slash at a neighbor, you have to make sure you do it in time to the music playing. The bars at the bottom are moving inwards, you have to tap keys when a bar is directly centered. The success of the action is determined by how close to the beat you actually were.
This game is ridiculously hard, but becomes almost meditative once you know the controls and aren't thinking about what keys to press anymore. The tricky part is not hesitating - I tend to over-analyze and try to min-max my decisions in a game like this, but the beat moves too fast do so effectively. To succeed you need to internalize the patterns to the point where your first instinct is generally correct.
If you strip out the dancing, this game is not dissimilar from any arbitrary roguelike. For the uninitiated, this style of game is generally the sort of thing where you're given a single life to see how far you can get. They tend to be high-difficulty, and ramp up quickly. When you die, game over. While a huge genre, for me the canonical example is NetHack. This game has been in active development since 1987, with the latest release on May 7, 2019. It's played in a console, and uses ASCII characters to render the level:
The simple interface masks a truly incredible amount of depth and content, but actually seeing any of that content is brutally difficult. Mistakes as small as moving a tile in the wrong direction aren't exactly tolerated. I've never personally made it deeper than a handful of levels without dying. One feature I find fun is that sometimes the game will store where you died and in a subsequent run insert that level into the dungeon, replete with your old dead body to loot.
Windows, Linux, OS X, Xbox 360, PS3
Portal 2 is a pretty well-known game, for good reason. It's a puzzle game where the player is given a device that creates linked portals in walls, and must use them to traverse spaces that would otherwise be impassable in increasingly creative ways.
It's not a long game, but just long enough to feel satisfying and also includes a great two-player co-op set of levels. It also has a fantastic sense of humor throughout. It's all funny but my personal highlights are the Cave Johnson voiceover monologues you start hearing partway through the story while you're trying to solve rooms, provided by actor J.K. Simmons. It's some of my favorite game audio anywhere.
The first Portal game is also great and worth a play, but it's much smaller and deviates much less from the core portal-gun concept. It feels like a prototype of the idea, which once proven enabled Valve to make the actual game around it with Portal 2.
Both games are completely standalone, but take place in the same universe as the Half-Life series of first-person shooters. The subtle universe tie-ins are fun if you've played both games.
Windows, Linux, OS X, Switch, Steam VR
I mentioned above that I am very bad at first-person shooter games. Similarly, I am very bad at Super Hot, but for completely different reasons.
This shooter drops you into very simple levels with a number of enemies with guns, and you have to kill everyone. The twist is that time moves as quickly as you do. If you're standing still, everything slows to a crawl, and as you move around the level time moves forward in a way that matches your speed. This includes bullets that have been fired - so you can dodge, but don't speed up too much to do so. Here's an early pre-release demo of the mechanic you can try for free, sans baddies, to get a better feel for the idea.
It's pretty cool. I have no idea how to not suck at it, but it's pretty cool.
It's been years since I've played this game, but it was notable for allowing the player to rewind time to retry a maneuver. That's not quite what SuperHot is about, but it was the closest example of time-malleability I could think of. Can you think of any other better examples?
Windows, Linux, OS X
I have no idea how to play Crusader Kings 2.
Huge strategy games represent some of my all-time favorites. I like the open-ended decision making a 4X (eXplore, eXploit, eXpland, eXterminate) game requires. This is a huge genre, with dozens if not hundreds of examples. This, though, is just as much an alternate history generator as a strategy game, with an astounding level of detail in the simulation. I've put a decent amount of time into it, but I still feel like I'm just learning how it works, and it's more accurately playing me.
Like many other superficially-similar games, you're in charge of a country. The difference here is that you actually play a person. The game world is filled with actual people. Over the course of the game your person will age and die, and you will assume control of their heir. You've got ambitions and needs separate from your country's, and form and build relationships with other people, each simulated with their own personalities and motivations. Suffice it so say I've only scratched the surface of the complexity built into this game.
The level of detail gives rise to an impressively realistic political simulation. Running your country involves balancing the conflicting needs and wants of your empire's population, within your government, and across the globe. I've never played anything else quite like it.
Dwarf Fortress is also a history generator/simulator first and game second. I haven't played it, but I know it's also massively detailed, perhaps to an even greater extent. This Gamasutra interview with one of the creators sheds a little light on what that means - for one example about the initial world-generation stage:
It also makes a temperature map (biased by elevation and latitude) and a rainfall map (which it later biases with orographic precipitation, rain shadows, that sort of thing). The drainage map is just another fractal, with values from 0 to 100. So we can now query a square and get rainfall, temp, elevation and drainage data.
Tarn Adams for Gamasutra, 2008
That quote is from 2008, two years after the initial 2006 release and six years from the start of development. Dwarf Fortress remained in steady development since then with v0.44.12 released on July 18, 2018, maintaining an active devblog updated as recently as October 2, 2019 at the time of writing. This is still a very partially-realized implementation of their vision. Their version number is specifically designed to track progress towards v1.0, so, stay tuned.
Windows, Linux, OS X
HexCells is a very simple puzzle game. Each level has a certain number of specific hexes that need to be found. Like minesweeper, you right-click a hex to mark it if you think it's one of them, and the remaining hexes can be revealed to give you information about how many neighbors are targets. You also get numbers around the outside to tell you how many targets are found in a given row, column, or diagonal.
Each level that ships with each of the games in the series is handcrafted, and it shows. Once you finish, the final game of the trilogy does include a procedural level generator. The randomly-produced levels are also fun to solve, but don't quite feel as compelling.
This game feels a lot like a mix of the two, but I like it better than either. Minesweeper is frustrating because you can end up with an ambiguous 50/50 choice. In HexCells it is actually impossible to get stuck. You always have enough information to make a definitively correct move. If you don't see it, that's on you, not the game. Knowing that property holds for every level makes a huge difference.
The fact that it's an improvement over Sudoku for me is entirely subjective. There's nothing wrong with Sudoku. I happen to like HexCells better.
Windows, OS X
In The Witness, you're on an island with dozens and dozens of puzzles. Every single puzzle is based around a colored grid of dots where you have to trace the correct line. It starts off quite literally that simple, but as you progress the game stretches and extends the concept in tons of unexpected ways that integrate the environment and force you to relearn things you know.
I think it's an achievement from a game design and creativity standpoint. There is a huge variety of different twists, and amazingly there is never any sort of instruction or tutorial. You learn the mechanics of the puzzles by solving them, seeing what works and what doesn't. I was continually surprised by how a specific grid worked, even after I thought I had seen pretty much all the ways the game would mess with it.
While I do usually enjoy difficult puzzle games, the payoff for solving a grid is just more grids to solve, and it just didn't quite do it for me after a while. As cool as the concept is, I just didn't find it to be much fun in the end.
This game designer, Jonathan Blow, was previously known for a game I haven't played but have heard good things about called Braid. It sounds very creative mechanically as well, but I obviously can't say much about it. Has anyone played it? He is also the original creator of the JAI programming language.
Windows, Linux, OS X
Factorio is a little scary. You've crash-landed on an alien planet, and must locate and extract local resources to build yourself a new rocket to escape.
This is a game about systems design and automation more than anything else. It has so much crossover to software development which I think is why I find it so compelling. You're given a set of core components and solve small problems by individually placing them into a configuration that does what you need, for example producing railroad sections from wood planks and steel pipes. Then you can save a configuration as a "blueprint" and copy-paste that exact set of machines anywhere you like, letting you build at a higher level of abstraction. You're responsible for the whole supply chain including mining raw materials, smelting or refining those resources, and producing the intermediate products required for a recipe.
Keeping your factory humming feels a lot like debugging. Your solar panel producing unit's supply of steel has trickled and can't keep up with demands, so you trace your steel lines back and notice that your steel smelters don't have enough iron coming in. Your iron production is fine, but your belt has a split in it in between that production block, and the other side of the split was fine when you built it but has started hogging the supply. To fix it, you're basically looking at a refactor - maybe reshape this belt loop, or reorganize how iron is produced and distributed to avoid the bottleneck entirely. Perhaps those steel smelters should have their own dedicated iron smelters, instead of siphoning off the main supply, and the pros and cons of decisions like that are often only apparent "in production", once you've built it and see how it actually delivers. Sound familiar?
It's also got great multiplayer. The game is a massive time sink, and divying up the work can help get a factory productive much more quickly. Multiplayer maps can also let people specialize. If you don't like orchestrating the train schedule, someone else can handle that while you focus on defense or something.
If that's not enough, you can take it a step further. The game provides electrical wires and combinator devices to add programmable logic. Yep, sigh, it's Turing complete. Why build a rocket when you can build a raycasting game engine:
The hours I have dropped into this game outpace anything else I've ever played by a ridiculous margin. I do burn out and not touch it for extended periods, even a year at a time, but I will probably come back and spin up a new map every so often for years to come.
Despite all those hours, I've never come anywhere close to trying to build the rocket.
Any sandbox game will inevitably be compared to Minecraft, and there are a lot of similarities here. While I do enjoy a little Minecraft here and there, it doesn't hook me in nearly the same way because Factorio's building blocks are so much more interesting. Minecraft is much more like a Lego set that you can imbue with logic. Factorio's building blocks feel more akin to your favorite programming language. Belts and splitters are your control flow while the general-use automation machines are like functions. Using blueprints you build yourself a "standard library", and then can either scale up production without worrying about implementation, or refactor the implementation in one place and use it all over your factory. The complexity lies in the interactions between system components. As an inspiring software dev, that's pretty fun to me.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash