1) FINAL FANTASY VI
For the sake of clarity, there are four versions of this game available in North America, two of which are titled Final Fantasy III (the Super NES and Wii Virtual Console versions) and two which are titled Final Fantasy VI (the PlayStation and Game Boy Advance versions). The explanation is that, while this is objectively the sixth installment in the Final Fantasy series, it was only the third to make it to this side of the Pacific back in 1994. Most people describe the game as FF VI since it’s objectively the sixth installment of the series. Anyway…
The video review below does such an excellent job of laying out why this game is about as close to perfect as any game could possibly get that I don’t really feel compelled to offer my own alternate explanation on this particular title, with the exception of adding that all Final Fantasy games have a core them and the core theme of this game is love. Not love in a romantic sense, but love in the sense that you don’t have to take life on alone, and that in that fact you can find the meaning to life that you seek. And if you’re unable to find that meaning, you become capable of anything in the worst possible sense. That’s why this was and is such a powerful game to me. Life often feels like a chore to me, and it is a challenge. But this game’s brilliantly told story reminds when I’m down that I don’t have to face that challenge alone. That’s why this game is more meaningful than any other to me. I think it always will be.
If you don’t mind using a keyboard, you can play the Super NES version of this game here, where it’s called Final Fantasy III.
2) BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL
This story-driven, science fiction adventure game (now available in HD as a downloadable for the PlayStation 3) is about an investigative journalist’s quest for the truth behind rumors that your government is secretly aiding the forces invading your planet. You government is a military dictatorship that came to power in the wake of the alien invasion by promising to defend your planet. You gradually discover that, in reality, your government is indeed helping the invaders convert your planet’s citizens into their slaves behind the scenes of the war, thus perpetuating the conflict indefinitely so that the dictatorship can remain in place forever. You find and reveal more and more evidence to the masses, thus touching off a revolution. The story is told well and seemed timely when it was released back in 2003. At it’s core, this game is about Nietzsche-esque radical doubt, as its name implies. It also invokes Nietzsche in other ways, including at the end when you confront the main villain and nearly lose control of your soul in the process of fighting him, alluding to Nietzsche’s famous quote: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” A hardcore Nietzsche fanatic I may not be, but I’ve gotta say that this is the best game inspired by Nietzche’s worldview that you’ll ever play. It’s genuinely thought-provoking! And fun!
And now for the philosophical opposite of Beyond Good and Evil: a game about faith. Specifically the Shinto folk religion of the Japanese people.
The basic premise of this positively gorgeous and well-crafted RPG (the graphical style for which, appropriately, closely resembles that of many traditional Japanese paintings) is this: A descendant of the hero Nagi and self-proclaimed greatest warrior breaks the seal of the demon Orochi because he doesn’t believe in the legend behind it and wants to prove it false. Orochi escapes and curses the lands, sapping the life from every living being. Sakuya, the wood sprite and guardian of Kamiki Village, calls forth Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, known to the villagers as the reincarnation of the white wolf Shiranui who defeated the demon Orochi a century previous, and pleads for her to remove the curse that covers the land. Accompanied by an inch-high artist, Amaterasu (whom you take on the role of) is able to restore the land to its former beauty. Only with the restored faith of the people can Amaterasu summon the strength needed to seal Orochi away again.
This is a game about faith at a time when its rare for people to be open about such topics. It’s about how the abandonment of faith leads to disaster, including the abuse of nature, and what religion needs to do to restore people’s faith: It needs to help people and bring healing. I may not be a religious person, but this game tells its story so elegantly that it makes me want to religious. Therein lies its power.
There are multiple versions of this game, but the PlayStation 3 downloadable version is the one I most recommend, as it’s in HD and allows you the option of either controlling the Celestial Brush with a control stick or with the PlayStation Move motion controls.
4) WONDER PROJECT J2: JOSETTE OF THE CORLO FOREST
As explained in the video review below, this game was a Japanese-exclusive Nintendo 64 release, which meant that you had to understand Japanese to get very far in the game. Not to worry though: A English fan translation of the game is now available. You can use an emulator to the English version on your computer, but like the reviewer in the video, I too will recommend using an Ever Drive 64 so you can play the game on your actual N64 system the way it was meant to be played.
This game is part parenting simulation, part story-driven, science fiction adventure. It’s divided into two chapters: You spend the first chapter programming an android named Josette by teaching her a range of life skills in any order and manner you want. In the second chapter, Josette must apply those life skills in a quest against an empire. The second chapter is largely hands-off; Josette plays out the bulk of it herself. If you’ve programmed her well, she’ll perform correctly and win. If not, she’ll mess up, leading to all sorts of comical-but-frustrating situations. The review below does a good job of filling you in on how it all works.
I think a big part of the reason I find this game so addicting is because it’s probably the only sense in which I’ll ever have a child.
5) ULTIMA: QUEST OF THE AVATAR
Originally released on computers in 1985, this was one of the earliest RPGs to use customized characters and multiple-member parties. But Ultima: Quest of the Avatar differs from most RPGs in a fundamental way: in that the game’s story does not center on asking a player to overcome a tangible ultimate evil. The game’s premise is this: In the newly-reunified land of Britannia, the ruler, Lord British, feels that the people lack a sense of purpose now that their struggles against the triad of evil (from earlier Ultima games) has ended. Concerned about their spiritual well-being in this unfamiliar new age of relative peace, he proclaims the Quest of the Avatar: He needs someone to step forth and become the shining example for others to follow. The object of the game is to become that shining example — that spiritual leader — for the people of Britannia to follow by focusing on the main character’s development in virtuous life. The game follows the protagonist’s struggle to understand and exercise the Eight Virtues. After proving his or her understanding in each of the virtues, locating several artifacts and finally descending into the dungeon called the Stygian Abyss to gain access to the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, the protagonist becomes an Avatar. Conversely, actions in the game could remove a character’s gained virtues, distancing them from the construction of truth, love, courage, honor, and the greater axiom of infinity, which are all required to complete the game. Though Avatarhood is not exclusive to one chosen person, the hero remains the only known Avatar throughout the later Ultima games, and as time passes the Avatar is increasingly regarded as a myth. (The franchise’s symbolic allusions to real-world mythology are obvious and provide an interesting take on it.)
I think a big part of the reason I like this game so much is because its premise and objective are so unique. To me, it feels defiant to be into a game that revolves around the development of one’s moral character here in the age of Hitman and Grand Theft Auto.
If you don’t mind using a keyboard, you can play the NES version of this game here.