When I sat down to reflect, as many did at year-end, on the 2010s, I was initially averse to really trying to boil the whole decade down to ten games. I still am, truthfully, since, with a couple exceptions, you could ask me on any given day and I could rattle off a completely different list of games that would be worthy of appearing on such a list. To compile the following, I started first by looking at a lot of the big games year by year. And fortunately, I’ve been coming up with formal Top Ten lists myself since 2014 so I knew I had a lot of possible options to choose from. But as I looked as those lists, I recognized that some of the games I had deemed “Best of” in their given year might not be as good a fit for the Best of the Decade list as some that I had ranked lower at the time so I sort of threw a lot of my previous rankings out the window. I eventually narrowed it down to about twenty games in a note on my phone that I then set about ranking and cutting. Here are the top ten I identified (but again, ask me in a week and I could have changed my mind on a few because there were a ton of great games from the last ten years). No honorable mentions section this time out because there are just too many to list.
10. Pokemon GO (2016)
I would submit that any best of the decade list that doesn’t include Pokemon GO is simply wrong because disregarding the world-encompassing phenomenon that this mobile game evoked is a huge oversight on its impact. It doesn’t matter if the game is built around simple mechanics or was a bit threadbare at launch, it still had tens of millions of people walking around out in the real world and working together to Catch ‘Em All. I will never forget going down to Tempe Town Lake near my apartment on pretty much any given evening during those first couple months and seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of other trainers walking up and down the shore trying to catch a Snorlax in the company of others. The fact that the game has continued to grow and expand to keep players coming back for years is icing on the cake.
9. Beat Saber (2018)
With the increased focus on virtual reality in the last few years, I wanted to reflect that element of gaming on this list and no other game encompasses VR gaming right now more than Beat Saber. An incredibly simple idea of mashing up the rhythm game genre with the childhood dream of swinging around lightsabers, Beat Saber is VR’s best example of “easy to learn, difficult to master.” Whether you want to just hop in the game for a couple rounds of swinging around the sabers to the phenomenal soundtrack or try and top the Leaderboards, the game provides a myriad of gameplay settings to tweak that allows you to customize the experience to your comfort level so that nearly anyone can have a great time.
8. Stardew Valley (2016)
As a fan of games like Harvest Moon going all the way back to the Super Nintendo, Stardew Valley recaptured a magic that the originators of the genre have lost over the years. It’s very rare that I find a game that can get me to sit down at my PC instead of the comfort of my couch but Stardew Valley was one such game. The gameplay was the familiar mix of juggling your time as you restore a run-down farm, get to know the locals, fish, mine, dungeon crawl, etc. that took me back to some of my favorite times with similar games in the past like the original Harvest Moon, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature on the PlayStation, or Rune Factory on the Nintendo DS. It also sparked one of my favorite bits of creative writing from the past few years as I turned my daily adventures into a multi-part journal of sorts about my farmer’s experiences engaging with the community of Pelican Town.
7. Doom (2016)
The 2016 reboot of Doom felt incredible and reinvigorated my enjoyment of the first-person shooter. As someone who never really got into Halo or Call of Duty, the genre had largely fallen by the wayside for me. But the speed and pacing of Doom just amped up everything in a way that clicked and got me excited again. I remember walking away thinking, “every FPS from here on out should feel this good. That’s my new baseline.” Unfortunately, not a lot in the time since have felt that good but Doom Eternal has me excited for 2020 and where the genre will go into the next decade.
6. Portal 2 (2011)
When Portal 2 launched in April 2011, I hadn’t played the original. I hadn’t really been much of a PC gamer during my college years outside of a lot of Sims and Civilization. And when Portal 2 came out, I played it on my PlayStation 3 but fell so in love with the puzzles and ideas behind the game that I sought it out again on PC just so I could also enjoy the player-generated levels people were creating. I also went back and played the original to have a bit more context for where it came from. I talked a lot about this game on the first season of That Ultimate Video Game List Show but what sets this above and beyond other puzzle games was its writing and story. Stephen Merchant is wonderfully bumbling as Wheatley, J.K. Simmons is a firebrand as the voice of Aperture Science Founder and CEO Cave Johnson, and Ellen McLain is once again a pitch-perfect GLaDOS, expertly nailing the character’s slyly sardonic tone.
5. Mass Effect 3 (2012)
I think the people who complained about the ending missed the point of Mass Effect. As with all great stories, our time with Commander Shepard was always about the journey more than the destination. It was about a series of small decisions being paid off in your relationships across a trilogy of titles and save files: not just one final choice and cutscene. It’s why I’ve always preferred Mass Effect 3 over Mass Effect 2. I won’t argue that 2 is a better stand-alone offering. I played it for the first time without having playing the original game (in the days before Mass Effect came to PlayStation) but when all three titles are put together, Mass Effect 3 is such a rewarding culmination of so many different narrative threads and character beats that it will always stick with me. And the “Citadel” DLC is, in my humble opinion, the best DLC ever produced, filled with all types of the right kind of fan service.
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
As with Stardew Valley above, it is a very rare game that gets me to spend some time playing on my PC. So the fact that my Steam playtime for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim clocks nearly 300 hours is a testament to how much I loved spending time exploring the various nooks and crannies of this grandiose Bethesda world. Leaps and bounds more enjoyable for my taste than Morrowind or Oblivion before them, the jump in design into Skyrim stands out as the thing I most hoped we would have gotten in the leap from Fallout 3 to Fallout 4 because aesthetically, that’s the game world I would rather spend time in. But Skyrim blows it out of the water with so many incredibly memorable locations, side stories, and faction quests, in addition to a wonderful main narrative. There’s a reason it has been ported to every possible system: people want to keep exploring that world.
3. The Last of Us (2013)
If I were ranking these next two games solely on their own merits, I’d put The Last of Us in the number two slot. The standalone story it tells is a beautiful adventure with incredible characters, heartbreaking moments, fantastic design elements, and incredible gameplay. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deliver some of the best video game performances we’ve ever seen and the overall polish makes this, in my opinion, the best standalone project Naughty Dog has every produced. But when I include my actual number two, I’m factoring in all of the other entries in its incredible franchise that are all paid off in…
2. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)
This marks the fourth game from 2016 on this list which I think sets that year out as my favorite year of gaming for the decade (and my actually number one from that year The Witness didn’t even make the cut).
Uncharted 4, despite its bumpy road to release, stands out as my favorite title in the series and it just narrowly edges out The Last of Us on this list because it is such a wonderful send off for Nathan Drake, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, and Elena Fisher. I remember a lot of the thinking going into this game had people convinced that they were going to take a darker tone coming off of The Last of Us but I never understood that. That wasn’t the kind of series that Uncharted was. I never expected our heroes to meet some tragically sad fate. The most notable death the series had ever had was some one-off cameraman named Jeff. This was always going to be an adventure that would send the cast of characters we’d grown to love off into the sunset happy and healthy (just like its biggest influence Indiana Jones always did). But in doing so in also managed to introduce a handful of fascinating new characters as well.
Troy Baker immediately fits in as long-lost big brother Sam Drake and he does it so naturally that it is easy enough to forgive the fact that we’d never heard about him until this installment (because…as a reminder, we’d only ever really spent a small sliver of time with Nate and company compared to the lives they lived out of our hands). Laura Bailey brings a conflicted strength to Nadine Ross that I’m glad was further explored in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. And Warren Kole portrayed my favorite Uncharted villain as Rafe Adler, who very much feels like the Aaron Burr to Nathan Drake’s Alexander Hamilton (for fans of that musical reference). Rafe has seen Nate surpass him in virtually every way since their early treasure hunting beginnings and it has been eating him up for years until he reached a breaking point. By finally featuring a foil with an actual worthwhile history with Nate, Rafe rounded out a much-needed dimension that I always felt was lacking from the prior installments.
All in all, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End delivered such a satisfying emotional conclusion to Nathan Drake’s story that I had to give it the edge over The Last of Us.
1. God of War (2018)
The 2018 soft reboot of God of War is a game that fires on all cylinders for me. It is the epitome of game directors and designers allowing their characters and ideas to grow up with the audience playing them. Kratos was fun in the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 era and I will even stand by the argument that the original God of War is itself a fantastic character piece for the Ghost of Sparta and it wasn’t until the sequels that the character turned into the caricature he was often portrayed as. But Cory Barlog and his team managed to successfully reinvent that character by moving him off into a completely different pantheon and giving him the familial relationships that were so crucial to his origin: a wife and child.
But Kratos has been through so much since the death of his first family that we see how differently he approached his Norse one, keeping them a bit more at arm’s length for fear of who he was and what he had become. I could go on and on about my love for the story and character work of this God of War but I still have a few other “best of” lists to crank out this weekend so I’ll pivot to the other elements.The game design is brilliant. The “one-shot” camera work for the entire journey is an inspired choice. The performances are across the board phenomenal. The Lake of Nine and surrounding lands, and the uncovering of those lands, is incredibly enjoyable. The combat is fantastic and the Leviathan Axe will go down in gaming history as one of the all-time most satisfying weapons. Atreus is up there with Ellie as one of the best companion characters in gaming, both from a narrative choice as well as a gameplay one. Everything works together so seamlessly to craft an incredibly special game from the opening frames to the closing credits. It is my finest game of the last decade, as well as my all-time favorite at this point (sorry Final Fantasy VI but as the front runner for 24 years, you had a great run).