Some of these games will strike you with moments of elation, others malicious satisfaction or the need to let loose a solid fist pump. We love a good yank on our emotions once in awhile, positivity be damned.
The thing that binds these games is a tendency toward quiet, crushing stress. These will bring you low and fray your nerves, only to see you recommending them to a friend.
7. ‘THE BANNER SAGA’
Something descends from the north. An old enemy, something Man and Varl have been fighting for far too long, is emerging in numbers neither can hold against. As characters abandon their homes to the encroaching tide of expressionless creatures, they collect into caravans of refugees travelling toward what they pray will be the asylum of untouched villages. And for some reason, the sun no longer sets.
You’re placed in control of some of these travellers moving through a world rife with sorrows and grim mythology. You’ll make difficult, dangerous decisions about their behavior and engage in something like bloody chess to resolve encounters with the stony figures lumbering inexorably across the land. People will die, and you will be responsible. Powerful narrative will make your mistakes hurt.
6. ‘PAPERS, PLEASE’
You’re just working a border crossing. This’ll be easy! Some folks are regular travellers, some folks want to cause mischief in the fair communist utopia of Arstotzka. All you need to do is weed out the troublemakers, let through the families with genuine documents, and avoid angering your superiors with mistakes. You don’t want them to deduct from your starving family’s welfare funds. You have your loved ones to protect, and sometimes separating husbands from wives over technicalities is a duty you must abide, right?
As terrorist activities mount, those in the queue gain sympathetic character, and the discrepancies in papers become easier to miss. You must not let empathy cloud judgement or overcome obligation to your glorious nation. You are not becoming a wretched monster if your actions are solicited by your country. Right?
5. ‘SUNLESS SEA’
The sea, she is a fickle mistress. An enterprising captain could gather a fortune in secrets ferrying colonists from the gaslight or going full steam into the dark for greater opportunity. But he, she, or it is just as likely to meet their end on the far side of a sodden terror from beyond the Salt Lions or find themselves stranded adrift in the endless black abyss. Perhaps the solace of being eaten by your crewmates will spare you a creeping descent into madness.
Sunless Sea is rich with vignettes depicting a subtle, splendidly creative horror. You’ll navigate a social climate influenced by the monstrous things wearing human faces and manage the dwindling supplies and sanity of your crew as you explore the game’s lovely prose and cavernous expanse.
4. ‘XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN’
Granted it’s not saying much, but this one is a little more lighthearted. You’re tasked with defending Earth from the incursion of Close Encounters style UFOs and almond-eyed grays as well as their more intimidating allies. The XCOM project’s bunker will require development to meet this mounting threat, but public faith in your organization, along with the essential funding for research and the production of equipment and facilities, is almost never in comfortable supply. Players face an ever-present sense of scrambling for the resources needed to quash the next peril, not to mention the dread of XCOM’s infamously punishing chains of random catastrophes.
Despite the “old fashioned” aesthetics of your quarry, this game spins a compelling invasion story around your turn-based battle sequences. The planet’s demise crouches, ready to pounce at your throat, around every turn.
3. ‘THIS WAR OF MINE’
War is often dramatized, its participants cast as heroes and villains. Less frequently, they’re represented as ordinary people wrapt in something larger than themselves. Seldom do we follow the activity of those existing in the cracks between rubble and battle lines. This War of Mine entrusts you with the fate of these civilians, asking you to accompany their struggle for sustenance as they search for supplies, negotiate encounters with survivors as desperate and wary as themselves, and build a safe place to sleep.
How much of their humanity are you willing sacrifice to preserve their lives? Will you dedicate resources to the comfort of familiar meals or the succor of alcohol? Its coming expansion is adding children.
2. ‘THE LONG DARK’
I don’t think it’s supposed to be this cold. In the absence of the release version’s narrative—The Long Dark is in “Early Access”, meaning it is playable but unfinished—we won’t know exactly what’s happened, but something has rendered much of society’s defenses against nature ineffective. And so you trudge through the bleak and the barren in search of calories and shelter.
Maybe you can burn abandoned furniture for warmth or melt the carcass of something the wolves couldn’t finish. Cabins dotting the many square kilometers of wilderness could hold invaluable antiseptics or insulated boots, but they may have already been looted by other woeful souls. There’s a lot to fear as this game simulates the myriad ways in which your gradual death could encroach.
1. ‘VALIANT HEARTS: THE GREAT WAR’
Eschewing sweeping epics for far more personal stories, Valiant Hearts follows individuals from several nations involved in the first world war. Some are kin, relatives conscripted into opposing allegiances. Others are just trying to preserve the flicker of life wherever they can. You’ll spend most of your time attempting to help victims instead of creating your own, negotiating obstacles or distracting the armed to pass by unnoticed.
Valiant Hearts is often praised as one of the most mindful depictions of war. It does dip into welcome levity and optimism on occasion, but this stylized tale does not shy from the havoc wrought in individuals’ existences or ladle honey over the war’s toll. You will fear how these characters’ stories will end, and you’ll savor it all the more for that.
Kris Goorhuis is a freelance writer, nerd, and pathologically shy fish in a sea of eyes. Leer at him on Twitter @krisgoorhuis.
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