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Over decades of PC game development, there have been some truly influential PC games released. These are games that are truly innovative to the point that they inspire countless other games released afterwards.
In this article we list the most influential PC games everyone should play at least once. These are games that have reinvented genres or moved them forwards. And the best thing of all? They’re superb fun to play too.
Above everything else listed here, Doom might be the most influential video game of all time. You take control of a space marine, wielding weapons and working through labyrinthine military bases to defeat enemies. You view things from a 3D first-person perspective, but everything within the levels are 2D sprites. It’s an iconic look.
Doom undoubtedly pioneered the first-person shooter and laid many foundations for the genre. The first episode of the game was distributed as shareware, the full game by mail order. It let players network together locally for multiplayer. It even had support for modifications. The impact that Doom has had on the gaming scene cannot be overstated.
World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that connects people globally to quest together in a fantasy world. You’ve certainly heard of it, since it has permeated so much of pop culture.
World of Warcraft may have hit the scene in 2004, but it’s still actively played by millions of users, and it helped popularize the idea that gamers would pay a subscription to keep playing.
In World of Warcraft, Blizzard created a sprawling, vibrant space that balanced deep lore with colorful humor. You are encouraged to do whatever you want, alongside teaming up with others in order to complete quests.
These might take place in self-contained dungeons, helping a character gain experience rewards, before going to tackle a complex raid. All of these are gameplay mechanics that World of Warcraft mastered, and many others have replicated.
3. Half-Life 2
You could list the original Half-Life here and it would still be accepted in the innovation hall of fame. The sequel, released by Valve in 2004, is equally deserving.
This is a first-person shooter, full of crazy unique mechanics like a gravity gun that is used to solve physics puzzles. Plus, despite being a shooter, you’ll likely hear more people talking about the engaging story, which naturally occurs around you—and directly involves you—rather than through cutscenes.
By the way, perhaps the most innovative part about Half-Life 2 is more about how you play it. Valve had developed a digital store called Steam and wanted to get it in as many people’s hands as possible. The way it did that? If you wanted to play the hotly anticipated Half-Life 2, you had to install Steam, helping it turn into the game client behemoth we all know today.
4. The Sims
The Sims launched in 2000 and quickly became a global sensation. It was a sandbox game unlike anything else. To this day it lives on through its sequels and endless expansions.
We’ve previously covered the differences between the Sims games, if you’re interested. The original, though, was innovative in letting you create your own virtual people and control every aspect of their life. You made them eat, talk to friends, go to work, have a swim, and so much more.
Equally important as controlling your characters was creating the houses that they live in. By earning the fictional currency of Simoleons, you could buy pre-made homes or build your own from the ground up—deciding not only on the layout, but also how it’s furnished and decorated.
Be careful with The Sims, since it’s very easy to lose hours looking after your virtual folk more than yourself.
The Secret of Monkey Island was by no means the first point-and-click adventure game when it was published in 1990 by LucasArts. In fact, the company had made a bunch of them already.
What it was, however, was a streamlined culmination of what made them so good. It had a refined verb interface, branching dialog, and it was impossible to die. It was also an excellent, hilarious experience that has influenced hundreds of games since.
You take control of Guybrush Threepwood, a washed up wanna-be pirate who sets out on a quest to find some legendary treasure. He gets himself into all sorts of mishaps along the way, with much of the comedy coming at his expensive, but somehow he manages to bumble through.
Monkey Island is a perfect blend of comedy, story, and challenge. And it remains an all-time classic.
If developer CD Projekt Red was already on the map, The Witcher 3’s release in 2015 cemented its position. Inspired by the fantasy novels of the same name, the third game in the franchise pushes the boat out on what a role-playing game can offer. You take control of Geralt, a monster hunter in search of his missing daughter, fighting off enemies with weapons and magic.
It’s an open world game, but that’s a term that has become unimpressive lately. The Witcher 3 is a shining example of how it should be done. You want to take your time to explore everything you come across because the lands are so rich in detail.
Although this is fantasy, it’s not clichéd, and the monster designs especially are amazingly unique. Side quests, which are normally added to pad out gameplay, are well written nuggets of excitement. Don’t worry if you haven’t played the first two games—dive right in.
Grand Theft Auto III was, as you might expect, the third game in the series. The two that came before, although excellent in their own right, were top-down experiences where you had to commit crimes to score the most points within missions. The third entry shook everything up—landing first on PlayStation 2 in October 2001, then arriving on PC seven months later.
GTA III gave you a fully realized 3D city to explore at your will, presented in a third-person perspective. You could roam around on foot or in car, choosing to follow the main story of crime and corruption, or go off and engage in side missions—or just mess around in the open world. It’s something you might take for granted nowadays, but with its wacky characters, killer soundtrack, and controversial violence, GTA III was a true innovator.
Crysis is a futuristic shooter where you control a U.S. army soldier, fighting extraterrestrial threats after discovering an ancient alien-built structure deep within a mountain. The gameplay was dynamic and satisfying, the AI intelligent, and the zero-gravity mechanic was amazingly fun to experiment with.
What Crysis is perhaps best known for, however, is the huge steps it took in advancing graphical design. On its release, you needed to have a mighty beast of a PC to be able to run it at the highest settings with a smooth framerate.
Crysis made great use of its technical demands, since the world was dense and the physics clever, but there’s a reason that Crysis was used to benchmark gaming PCs for years.
Civilization is a turn-based strategy game that was released in 1991, which opens in 4000 BC and challenges you to build an empire that can last until the near-future. It’s a formative example of the 4X genre—explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Civilization required you to use your brain, plotting your strategy over hours of deep turn-based gameplay.
Civilization was, of course, inspired by board games, along with video games like Risk, but it was the first to let you oversee human history.
While the first game is not available for purchase, the series is currently on its sixth entry and continues to be expanded through DLC. In fact, the Civilization formula has only been further perfected over time, meaning you can still get that innovative “just one more turn” experience today.
If you decide to play the most recent title, here are our Civilization VI tips and tricks.
10. Deus Ex
Deus Ex owes a lot to the shooters than came before it, but the decision to team the gunplay up with role-playing statistics and dialog choices was inspired. Oh, and add in some stealth for good measure. It’s an action game at heart, with all the quick-paced excitement that comes with that, but it also requires you to engage in the story.
There are multiple paths you can take in the futuristic plot, the decisions that you make influencing what plays out. You can also customize the abilities of the lead character, JC Denton, in order to gain access to different areas. If you thought branching narratives were a new thing in games, 2000’s Deus Ex would like a stern word.
Influential PC Games Offer a Slice of Nostalgia
These are some of the most influential PC games that are still worthy of your time. Hopefully you enjoy playing them and discovering where the genres and tropes you’re now used to seeing began. Of course, what’s even more exciting is thinking about the innovation that lies ahead…
Until then, why not dive into some nostalgia with a retro PC games? We’ve rounded up a list of old PC games still worth playing today.