25 Video Games Every Game Design Student Should Play Before They Graduate

By Scott Rogers, NYFA Game Design

Developers of new games constantly reference existing games when collaborating with their teammates. There is nothing worse than seeing the team latch onto an idea inspired by an existing game, but you have no idea what they are talking about.

The following is a list of 25 video games every game design student should play before they graduate. It’s not supposed to be a list of the best games of all time, but rather a list of important works that will let you contribute in any design meeting in the industry. Pro tip: If you can’t get access to play the games in full, try watching game play videos on Youtube.

“The Stanley Parable”

Developer: Galactic Cafe

Platform: PC
Published: 2011

Why it should be played: “The Stanley Parable” was one of the first “walking simulators,” which used level and sound design to tell a story rather than cutscenes and cinematics. Its dry sense of humor and meta-theme about player choice – which results in over 20 different endings to the game – is a great example to future game designers of how branching narrative works and can be told through level design.

“Super Mario 64”

Developer: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 64
Published: 1996

Why it should be played:  To this day, “Super Mario 64” has the best 3D camera in video games – the secret is treating it as if it were a separate character from the player. The revolutionary analog controls are a perfect complement to the camera and the level design artfully translates traditional 2D gameplay into 3D space.

Batman: “Arkham Asylum”

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Developer: Rocksteady

Platform: PS3, XBOX 360, PC, XBOX 360, PS4
Published: 2009

Why it should be played: Everything in the game is designed to make the player feel like they are Batman, from the masterful story to the reactive controls to the surprisingly deep stealth-based gameplay. This results in the first Batman game that is actually true to the license.

“Portal”

Developer: Valve Corporation
Platform: PC, XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: The game is a master class in how to introduce and combine mechanics using level design to create ramping challenges to the player. Another rare example of the use of humor in video games.

“Super Mario Bros.”

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Developer: Nintendo

Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Published: 1985

Why it should be played: A classic in 2D scrolling level design. Its first level – World 1.1 – is considered the best level ever designed.

“Bioshock”

Developer: 2K Games
Platform: PC, XBOX 360, XBOX One, PS3, PS4
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: “Bioshock” is a first person shooter game that employs intrinsic storytelling through level design, collectibles and gameplay. It is a rare example of a game with a moral point of view, and it utilizes an unreliable narrator as a storytelling device.

“Ico”

Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Platform: PS2
Published: 2001

Why it should be played: “Ico” is revolutionary in its use of a sympathetic second character to generate player empathy and create puzzle design. It is notable for having a story told without using dialogue, thereby increasing its accessibility to audiences.

“Fruit Ninja”

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Developer: Halfbrick

Platform: Mobile, XBLA, XBOX One, PS Vita, HTC Vive
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: In addition to its simple concept and satisfying player feedback, the mobile game in particular is an excellent example of how to use consistent touch screen controls in all aspects of the game.

“Tetris”

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Developer: Elorg

Platform: Too many to list
Published: 1984

Why it should be played: This historically important example of casual video games is an excellent example of abstract game design and the go-to “exhibit A” in the academic discussion of gameplay vs. story (answer: they are both important).

“Oregon Trail”

Developer: MECC

Platform: PC, XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 1971

Why it should be played: Not only the first educational game but one of the earliest games to use a parser. It also evolved into early graphic adventure game. It teaches while still being fun.

“M.U.L.E.”

Developer: Ozark Softscape

Platform: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit
Published: 1983

Why it should be played: This historically important early economic sim showed that games can more than just dexterity based, action games.

“Dragon’s Lair”

Developer: Cinematronics

Platform: Arcade
Published: 1983

Why it should be played: “Dragon’s Lair” is the first laser disc, traditionally animated arcade game with a complete story. Its gameplay is a precursor to Quick Timer Events — and it is an interesting milestone of the time when the film industry recognized games as an emerging and profitable form of entertainment.

“Myst”

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Developer: Cyan

Platform: Mac, Saturn, PS, 3DO, PC, PSP, DS, 3DS
Published: 1993

Why it should be played: This early CD-ROM game was one of the first to utilize 3D pre-rendered graphics, and inspired game developers to incorporate CG graphics and story into their games.

“Journey”

Developer: thatgamecompany

Platform: PS3, PS4
Published: 2012

Why it should be played: An example of an “art” game that delivers an emotional story despite simple, almost non-existent gameplay.

“Donkey Kong”

Developer: Nintendo

Platform: Arcade
Published: 1981

Why it should be played: The first game with story, the first platform game and a great example of making lemonade from lemons.

“Darfur is Dying”

Developer: TAKE ACTION games

Platform: Browser
Published: 2006

Why it should be played: An important example of “serious” gaming and browser-based gaming that is also quite playable.

“Uncharted 2: Among Thieves”

Developer: Naughty Dog

Platform: PS3, PS4
Published: 2009

Why it should be played: A modern classic of 3D level design, AI design, controls, camera and storytelling.

“Pokemon Go”

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Developer: Niantic

Platform: Mobile
Published: 2016

Why it should be played: A modern example of using Global Positioning and Augmented Reality in gaming; how the real world can be used as a game space.

“Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos”

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Platform: PC, Mac
Published: 2002

Why it should be played: Not only a classic of real time strategy gaming, but also contains a robust gameplay editor instrumental in the indie movement of gaming.

“Call of Duty: Ghosts”

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Developer: Infinity Ward

Platform: PC, XBOX 360, XBOX One, PS3, PS4, Wii U
Published: 2013

Why it should be played: An excellent example of the first person shooter genre that uses intrinsic storytelling and shifting perspectives as well as classic level design techniques.

“The Walking Dead: Season 1”

Developer: Telltale Games

Platform: PC, XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: A fine example of the postmodern adventure game genre, featuring gameplay with moral choices and multiple pathing.

“Red Dead Redemption”

Developer: Rockstar Games

Platform: XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 2010

Why it should be played: A prime example of an open-world environment gameplay, how to direct gameplay despite an open-world and how to provide gameplay that appeals to all four of Bartle’s classes of players.

“LittleBigPlanet”

Developer: Media Molecule

Platform: PS3, PSP, PS4
Published: 2008

Why it should be played: LittleBigPlanet is a top-notch platform game that also has a fantastic level editor to teach you how to make your own levels.

“CodeCombat”

Developer: CodeCombat

Platform: Browser
Published: 2014

Why it should be played: A great educational game, where players learn how to write code while fighting monsters! Also good example of how to incentivize a player through monetization

“Superman 64”

Developer: Titus Software

Platform: Nintendo 64
Published: 1999

Why it should be played: Although this suffers from horrible controls, camera, gameplay and storytelling, it is important for game developers to learn how not to make a game.

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s game design programs!

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