Like others who dedicate some carved-out part of their identity to the craft, I can punctuate almost every year of my life by at least one video game that came […]
Like others who dedicate some carved-out part of their identity to the craft, I can punctuate almost every year of my life by at least one video game that came to me at the right place, at the right time. I was 17 when I graduated high school in May of 2010 and spent the summer immediately following bouncing between undergraduate coursework and Red Dead Redemption. With 2011 came The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The summer of 2012 was built around the Humble Indie Bundle V as I was making the long commute back and forth to work with the soundtracks of Bastion and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery on repeat in the car. In 2015, when I returned from a year spent living in Boston, finding myself confronting depression and feeling as though my future was falling apart, there was Night in the Woods and Hohokum.
Now at 27, though far from the oldest or wisest person I know, I feel as though I have the clarity to reflect back on the last decade as a pivotal one in my ongoing relationship with video games as a medium. While I started as someone who was willing to buy every popular game that was released, and felt like I had to in order to stay ahead of the discourse, even if I knew I would never finish it; I now feel like someone whose taste has been refined to the point that I don’t feel shame in saying out loud that I just don’t like platformers very much. I don’t feel guilt in not buying the latest hot thing until the review embargo has lifted. My heart will always lie with the weird, the esoteric, the experimental, and the narrative-driven.
Below I have listed my 10 landmark games from the last decade (2010-2019), many of which have become powerful rituals in my life as much as they have become the touchstones that have developed my interests and tastes as a young adult. There are a lot of games worth loving out there and certainly far more than just these 10, though I hope you have loved, or will come to love, some of my dearest favorites.
I’ve seen Minecraft appear on a few other end-of-the-decade lists, and there’s usually some ensuing kerfuffle about how the game released in Alpha in 2008 which somehow means it couldn’t possibly count, despite a full release in 2011. I’m saving you the trouble by telling you this now, so you know that I’m not a stickler for particulars, and thus, am putting Minecraft on my end-of-the-decade list.
I owe a lot to Minecraft; it was one of the first games that got me actually playing games on my PC, and is also one of the first to teach me about modding communities. I was active for many years in the Minecraft subreddit and on some Minecraft-related forums, where I enjoyed playing custom-designed game types, maps, and on multiplayer servers. It is impossible to talk about Minecraft, of course, without acknowledging that it stems from problematic origins. In spite of this, I feel that the team deserves immense credit for persevering in spite of it all. Indeed, Minecraft is one of the few games that continues to improve in incredible ways; the current game is almost unrecognizable from where it started with even more great content on the horizon that will surely keep it on many best-of lists going well into the 2020s.
For me, Minecraft has been a very special place I return to when I need a break from things, even other games, and over time has become the common ground I share with many of the friends I’ve made playing social games on my PlayStation. Minecraft has been the glue that has kept us playing together for years now. We’ll build our hearts out, explore the depths of each map, and start all over again with even more enthusiasm than the last time.
9. Dishonored 1 and 2, and no, I will not choose between them
Look, Dishonored is one of the few franchises that reads to me like a package deal. There is no Dishonored without Dishonored 2. Sure, there was that time between the games when we only had Dishonored, but that’s the past. The future is now.
The Dishonored games on their own are a blissful combination of a grotesque, whalepunk, industrial revolutionist aesthetic with immersive stealth-’em-up mechanics, brought home by an immensely thoughtful narrative of political intrigue and otherworldly influence. The premise of the series is simple enough; you play as former Royal Lord Protector—turned spectral assassin—Corvo Attano. His primary goal in life is to hand anyone who took part in wronging him their very own ass. You have the choice to do this the easy way, by killing everyone and everything who stands before you, or the hard way, which allows you to assign a fate often worse than death to many of the targets who stand in your path. The beauty of Dishonored is that it rises to be more than just Corvo’s story of revenge, and tells deeply personal, troubling stories about characters in a world built on the back of poverty, disease, exploitation, and death. Not one iota of content is extraneous in Dishonored; indeed, Dishonored boasts some of the most incredible DLC stories I’ve ever played, bringing great complexities and perspectives to a story about so much more than revenge. More than just this, the series is also responsible for some of the most loved, cited, and influential level designs of the past decade, from Dishonored’s brilliant social-warfare simulator Lady Boyle’s Party to Dishonored 2’s intricate murder house The Clockwork Mansion.
I also named my dog after Corvo Attano, so it has that going for it too.
8. Dear Esther
Dear Esther is a ritual I have returned to and meditated on frequently since its release in 2012, though I didn’t hear about it until it was included in Humble Bundle’s Humble Indie Bundle 8 in 2013. At the time it was the talk of the office; I remember being asked so many times if I’d played it because it was just that good that I broke down and bought it the same day the bundle dropped.
While not the first game to be called a “walking simulator” pejoratively, it is a game that introduced me to a genre I was previously unfamiliar with and came to love and care for very deeply. Dear Esther tells a haunting narrative of a man struggling with grief over the death of his wife and his own deteriorating health, told in randomized, disjointed, repetitive pieces of dialogue offered at intervals as the player explores a ghost-inhabited, picturesque island in Scotland’s Hebridean archipelago. It is a remarkable example of how the lived experience of games, of their settings, of the actions taken in being present in a space or environment, can sometimes be the most meaningful way to tell a story. There is great life here, even with poignantly sparse, minimalist gameplay as the unnamed narrator makes an arduous, painful trek to find some sort of solace in his sorrow while occasionally relaying the stories of the men who had lived on the island centuries before his arrival. He grapples with and tries to unravel their motivations and their pain in a way that flows effortlessly with his own struggle to unpack and gain authority over his trauma in a way so remarkably human and greatly moving that it is no surprise Dear Esther inspired the design and the stories of so many games in the years following.
7. Return of the Obra Dinn
I’ve long been a fan of developer Lucas Pope, the man behind 2013’s Papers, Please—an immensely affecting simulation game about the tedium and morally grey day-to-day of working as a border agent whose well-being, and the well-being of his family, relies entirely on his ability to successfully complete his duties to the fictional nation of Arstotzka. Pope was similarly open about the development of his follow up game, Return of the Obra Dinn, whose demo I played in 2014.
The demo was clever and interesting, with a captivating art style, but it did not betray the incredible masterwork that the game would become. Return of the Obra Dinn again puts you in the tedious position of a public officer, this time as an insurance adjuster for the East India Company, sent to explore an abandoned ship and make some kind of sense about how members of its entire crew either mysteriously vanished or died violently. As others have noted before me, Obra Dinn is a fascinating game of three dimensional sudoku; armed with a pocket watch that allows players to travel back in time to the exact moment of a person’s death, players must thoroughly and correctly fill out an insurance claim while piecing together which sailor each corpse belonged to and what exactly their fate was. Using only sharp eyes and the clues of deduction, Obra Dinn is easily one of the most competent, complex, and thoughtful puzzle games of recent years, whose story takes such awe-inspiring and fantastical twists and turns that the act of exploring these frozen scenes of often horribly gruesome deaths is morbidly fun in the most unexpected way.
6. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I went into this past decade a massive Elder Scrolls fan. When I was in high school, right around the time that I got my first big console upgrade to an Xbox 360, a friend recommended that I check out The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, as I was into Fable at the time. Even to this day I can’t say if there is a game I have ended up playing as thoroughly or for as long as Oblivion and so, naturally, I was fully prepared to spend forever and a day combing every inch of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I bought the special edition, I did the midnight release. I’ve carried that damn Alduin statue around for almost a decade, from move to move. It’s sitting behind me on a shelf as I type this.
Skyrim decided to haunt me in a much different way than I was expecting. I never really had the same kind of time in these past 10 years as I did during my Oblivion days, yet I have found myself gently orbiting around Skyrim, always buying a new copy for this platform and that platform, always returning for a few spare hours, here and there, now and again. There is something so wonderfully familiar in Skyrim’s sweeping plains and snow-capped mountains that feels like home to me—a feeling I hadn’t properly grasped until playing Skyrim in VR late last year. I was in Jorrvaskr, the mead hall home of Skyrim’s mercenary group, The Companions, and decided to just sit down with my VR headset on, next to the fire. For a moment, everything around me melted away. It felt real, it felt comfortable, like I was meant to be there. Like I was in the company of a good friend.
Without a doubt, I knew I wanted to put at least one Fromsoft game on my list but I struggled to decide which one. I’ve dedicated a fair chunk of the last decade to the franchise as I love it dearly; Dark Souls 3 is my all-time favorite of the Dark Souls series, and one I often return to. In truth, despite how much I love them, I have only ever really been a bystander to the Dark Souls series. I have not mastered them as others have, I have not carved through their idiosyncrasies or “gotten gud” enough to walk with those who have.
Maybe it is because of this that I have long found Bloodborne to be the closest-to-perfect distillation of the type of game Fromsoft has been making since 2009’s Demon’s Souls, and one of my favorite games of all time, even outside the last decade. A contained experience, affecting a lone Hunter over the course of one hellish night, Bloodborne marries sharp, speedy combat with a highly aesthetic, cosmic-horror vision of traditional Souls-style sprawling locales. Unlike its “Souls-sisters,” I find that Bloodborne shines because of its more human-focused and environmentally-driven storytelling; presented are several key, conflicting factions whose various obsessions with being recognized by unknowable comic gods, known as Great Ones, helped to create the sick dynamic that has brought the spiraling gothic city of Yharnam near to ruin. Where the Dark Souls series often revels in its purposefully designed murkiness, Bloodborne instead spends its time lingering on the characters at play, on the settings it encompasses, and tells a moving, tragic story of the unknowable undoing brought about by the sheer hubris of man.
4. Disco Elysium
At the risk of sounding like the fun police, I often refer to myself as someone who is anti-hype. For whatever inexplicable reason, I feel an internal cringe anytime some piece of media arrives as The Greatest Thing That Everyone You Know Loves And Won’t Stop Talking About. Maybe I’ve just been burned so many times by That Greatest Thing to have learned this cynicism but, of course, it kicked into high drive in 2019 once again with the release of Disco Elysium. Lauded almost universally and self-billed as both “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” (like, who does that?), I naturally paused on this insane amount of hype to really consider if it was earned.
As it turns out, the right to call itself both groundbreaking and revolutionary is not only earned but earned tenfold. Disco Elysium is a fascinating character study of an objectively terrible person built on one of the most complex narrative systems I have ever seen, considered the natural iteration of 1999’s long-reigning RPG favorite, Planescape Torment. It is a game with such incredible depth and clarity of vision that I have not stopped thinking about it since the day I put it down. I know this all sounds like the hype machine at work, but Disco Elysium, like many of 2019’s games, grapples very earnestly with mental illness, with racial, political, and economic strife, and contributes meaningfully (in my opinion) to the overall discourse—and deserves credit for trying even where it stumbles. It is one of those games that I found at the right time and has been a solace for me ever since in trying to exercise some of my conflicting, frustrating feelings about our late-stage capitalist hellscape.
3. Outer Wilds
I hit a few snags in writing this list, one of which being the sense that I had to cite only the games that introduced some new mechanic or concept or idea first, even if they may have not necessarily done it the best. Such thinking feels like a trap; games that build on those mechanics and concepts and ideas are often disqualified because they are not thought of as original, even if they are the most polished, most thoughtful iteration.
Outer Wilds rests at the intersection of those concepts, in my eyes. While it is made up of parts familiar from other games, such as Majora’s Mask, Subnautica and No Man’s Sky, it packages them up so effortlessly and expertly that it’s easy to forget how many years and how many games had to happen before Outer Wilds could exist. And exist it does; as an indie joint, developed into a full game by the small team at Mobius Digital after early beginnings as a student project, Outer Wilds rises effortlessly to heights sometimes not even seen in the AAA space. A compact, yet somehow sprawling story of a civilization long past told from the eyes of a charmingly hobbyist spacefaring race living out the last hours of a dying solar system, Outer Wilds provides an endlessly surprising (and wonderfully tiny!) space exploration sim that meditates so beautifully on what it means to exist in a universe so much larger than just one person. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.
Every couple of years, one game will sneak out of the void and become the only thing I can think about. I hate to call it an obsession, but I’ll admit the feeling is something like it; it’s hard to say what exactly inspires this feeling in me, but Control was one of those games to take me by the shoulders and shake me until I was all in for the ride.
Control is Remedy Entertainment at its finest (and weirdest)—a game that feels like the natural conclusion of a decade chasing the supernatural that started back in 2010 with Alan Wake. While Alan Wake, as both a character and concept, is very much alive and well in this story, Control chooses to instead focus on the Federal Bureau of Control, an SCP Foundation-like that exists to research, contain, and understand anomalous objects and world events. The strength of the game is several-fold; stylish, mid-century, brutalist art direction melds so beautifully into incredible levels and interiors that grant a character and familiarity to The Oldest House’s otherwise incomprehensible architecture. Such a strong setting only sweetens fast-paced, third-person gunplay (with not a waist-high wall to be found!) that, while occasionally frustrating, made me feel more like a superhero than I ever have in a game before. But more than all of these wonderful parts, Control won my heart because it unabashedly celebrated its women. Rather than falling back on an old trope, Control instead empowers protagonist Jesse Faden and whip-smart bureau employees like Emily Pope to literally take control and make meaningful structural change in a system built on the backs of men whose actions nearly brought the Bureau, and the world, to its knees.
1. Kentucky Route Zero
I am certain my placement of Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) comes as no surprise to those that know me well. I loved every second of KRZ so intensely that I had a pivotal scene from Act III, released in 2014, tattooed on my body. But the importance of putting KRZ at the top spot from the last decade is not so much because it is my favorite game from the last decade (or games, if I include the four supplementary interludes that have been released: Limits & Demonstrations, The Entertainment, Here and There Along the Echo, and Un Pueblo de Nada), but also because I find it to be the most quietly influential, the most creatively ambitious, and as of yet the only unequalled game from the last decade. I had hoped to be able to see KRZ through to its completion by the end of 2019 so that I could meditate on the closure of something so personally meaningful. But I returned to the game recently, to sit and ruminate again on its lessons, and I wonder if there is also something poignant to be found in the pause we are left on as we enter a new decade.
Perhaps it is because I am older now, and understand it now, but I can’t help but feel as if the world we live in is full of more horror and terror than it has been before. KRZ confronts a lot of these evils directly, from corporate greed destroying rural communities, debt and alcoholism crippling those most vulnerable, to loss and guilt and the way that our histories, our traumas, and our relationships shape the people we become as we grow older. But what KRZ does so elegantly is present groups of people, as broken as they may be, often unfettered by what ails them—these artists and creators and magic makers—and celebrate how they manage to thrive and make meaning of things at the darkest hour, how they find some quiet sense of peace when there is no certainty in their futures. Perhaps this is an idealist’s view of things, but there is something about KRZ that gives me hope, that keeps my soul strong when the weight of the world makes me feel so impossibly insignificant. It reminds me that there is room for carving out joy wherever it can be found. It will always be meaningful to someone.
I agonized over this list immensely and ended up cutting several games that are very dear to me in the process of finalizing it. Because of this, I wanted to take a moment to name a few very special games that made creating this list almost impossible: Red Dead Redemption (2010), Mass Effect 2 (2010), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Journey (2012), Hohokum (2014), Gorogoa (2017), and Prey (2017).