Video games are cool.
This is a medium that allows us to live in other worlds, experience things we’d otherwise never get to, and connect with people and ideas we’d otherwise never be exposed to. They can challenge our minds, but they can also challenge our souls. The sheer diversity of what games can accomplish is astounding, from a personal intimate experience like Fullbright’s Gone Home to a massive connected one like Fortnite.
The past decade marks one of only a handful in the span of the gaming industry’s life. In that ten-year span we’ve seen massive shifts in the industry, franchises rise and fall, and the most unexpected of titles touch our souls. Looking back on my favorite entries of these ten years has been a powerful reminder of what games are capable of, and it leaves me ecstatic to see what the next ten years will bring for the medium.
10. Forza Horizon
When Forza Horizon came out, I was a senior in high school. I spent most of my time stressing about my future plans and I primarily did that from the confines of my bedroom. Forza Horizon presented an escape from all of that. The open world of the Colorado plains became my getaway.
Since its initial release, three more Horizon games have been made, and – while I’ve enjoyed jumping back into them – they’ve never hit me in the same way as the franchise’s first entry. I don’t know if I’d simply gotten all I needed from the first game, or if none of the new locales have quite connected with me, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll always cherish the time I had with this game. And sometimes, when life’s a bit too much, I can lean back, close my eyes, and I’m back on that desert highway, my car gliding from lane to lane. In those moments, I’m free; there’s nothing but horizon.
9. Portal 2
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Taking the original Portal’s popular gameplay hook, Portal 2 turns everything up to eleven. The comedy is more developed; the puzzles more intricate. By this virtue, the sense of reward naturally builds to higher highs – as some of the later puzzles push our mind’s ability to think with portals. I still vividly remember the elation of finally realizing how to shoot orange goo across a chasm in just the right way to zip myself to the necessary platform.
Portal 2 is a master at everything it does. It’s the best FPS ever made, one of the best puzzlers ever made, one of the best co-op games ever made, and, on top of ALL of this, it’s funny as all hell. With an already highly successful first game under their belt, Portal 2‘s developers did not need to go as hard as they did, but they did, and for that we are incredibly fortunate. I’m making a note here: huge success.
Skyrim wasn’t a game I expected to like. The stock fantasy world it seemed to present had only ever worked for me with Lord of the Rings and, despite multiple attempts, Fallout had never connected (it still doesn’t). Everything about Skyrim said I shouldn’t like it. And yet, Skyrim now stands as the first, and maybe only, single-player game I’ve put over 100 hours into.
I love this game. I love that after eighty hours in the game I’d become the head of the Dark Brotherhood, Archmage of the College of Winterhold, leader of the Thieves Guild, gotten married, purchased far more houses than anyone needs, and yet STILL hadn’t completed the main quest. I don’t do that. That doesn’t happen. I’m a goal-oriented person by nature. It’s VERY hard for me to not plow through main quest lines with the patience of a small child. And yet this game is one that I could just live in. It isn’t just a game that overcame my general indifference to medieval fantasy, it made me LIKE medieval fantasy. An entire genre of storytelling is now open to me, and I owe it to Skyrim.
7. Jackbox Party Pack 3
Some games are brilliantly designed intricate pieces of art that push the boundaries of what this medium is capable of, and some are just a lot of fun. Jackbox is the embodiment of the latter. This game deserves praise based purely on the sheer number of nights I’ve spent drunkenly trying to think of how to best insult my friends: making sure to find a way that’s just funny enough to get some easy “haha yeah take the L *insert name here*” votes. This game deserves a place on my list.
What’s impressive about Jackbox is the sheer versatility of it. I can play this game with three friends at a game night or twenty friends crammed into a room. I can play it to get a party started or to destress from a long night out. Jackbox may be the greatest party game ever made, and with iconic inclusions like Quiplash 2, Fakin’ It, and Trivia Murder Party bundled into Party Pack 3 – how could I not proclaim it the peak of the franchise?
6. Pokemon GO
Two summers ago, I sat in a San Francisco park with a bunch of my friends. We all had our phones out. We were all playing Pokemon GO. This was years after the app’s initial wave, well past when it seemed like you couldn’t step five feet without bumping into someone itching to track down that nearby Scyther. The game had grown by this point. Its roster of pocket creatures now expanded into later generations. The ways of engaging with it had similarly evolved.
On that day in the park, we were taking advantage of one of these evolutions: raids. Ten of us had grouped together in hopes of catching the nearby Regice. Ten is a hefty number as raids go, but even then our opponent was strong. As we fought, the clock ticked down, inching ever closer and closer to our failure. It was only in the last second, as the countdown struck “1,” that we whittled away the last of Regice’s health. Our team erupted in victory.
That experience is one of my favorites in gaming: the ability to bond with my friends over a shared challenge. I still have that Regice, and whenever I look at it I think of that moment, that shared experience (Editor’s note: Hey! I remember that raid and NOT catching that Regice so thanks for rubbing it in, Ben. – Trevor). It’s the same way I look at my Blastoise and think of spending community day walking around Disneyland with my friends, or the shiny Giratina I caught while visiting my sister in San Francisco. At its most basic, Pokemon GO is a fun way to collect cute characters we’re nostalgic about, and sure – that’s cool. At its best though, Pokemon GO is so much more. It’s a way to connect with people: to get out, explore the world, bond with our friends, and sure – catch some monsters along the way.
5. Breath of the Wild
When Miyamoto was a child, he loved to explore caves near his house. When he grew up, spurred on by this love for exploration, he gave birth to The Legend of Zelda – a monumental game in the history of the medium but also a game limited in its ability to capture Miyamoto’s grand vision. Breath of the Wild, to my mind, is the purest manifestation of what Miyamoto dreamed all those years ago: the essence of exploration and the wonder that comes with it.
Everything about the game is brilliantly crafted for that sense of freedom. Even the ways it punishes you, weapons breaking and walls too high to be climbed, are invitations for you to explore new solutions. It’s impressive how well this game pushes me to keep trying. To climb higher mountains, face stronger foes, and when I fail – which I will – pick myself up and try again. I haven’t played BotW in a long time now, but I like knowing it’s still there, sitting on my shelf. A whole world open to me whenever I need it.
4. Mass Effect 2
I’m a sucker for a good middle act. Empire Strikes Back and Last Jedi are my favorite Star Wars movies, Spider-Man 2 is one of my favorite superhero films, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 is one of my favorite animated films. Mass Effect 2 slots right into that pantheon, and yet it is also able to do something wholly unique. So often middle acts are about characters experiencing failure and loss. Where the first act is about their triumph, the middle is about them failing so they can fully come into their own at the trilogy’s close. To this end, they must suffer, and we as the audience feel for them. However, with Mass Effect 2, this dynamic is shifted. With Mass Effect 2, we must suffer.
Telling the continuing story of Commander Shepard, who must pull together a team of expert fighters for a suicide mission against a race of genocidal and mysterious alien creatures: Mass Effect 2 is about loss. As you recruit new teammates, side missions are opened up for you to grow your bond with them. I played them all. By the time the suicide mission came, I was terrified to lose the family I’d built. Every crew member I lost was a punch to the gut. At one point, mid-suicide mission, I had to put the controller down and not pick it up for a solid week. Their loss was made all the worse by knowing that this wasn’t the end of my time with Mass Effect. The trilogy wasn’t complete, and thus, every character that died due to my failure was a presence I wouldn’t get to experience in the trilogy’s final act.
Middle acts are often about hope and failure, ideals and realities. Mass Effect 2 makes us experience that firsthand. Characters don’t die because it was scripted, they die because we failed and now we must live with the consequences. Of course, we can always go back and replay the game: experience a Mass Effect saga where your team survives. I’ve done that playthrough, but it doesn’t change what came before. No matter how many times I replay the game, I’ll never be able to shake the memory of watching my team die, while knowing they didn’t have to.
3. Uncharted 4
Uncharted 2 used to be in my top three games. It’s the first time I realized that games could be more than simple stories to justify interesting mechanics. Picking up the controller and delving into the world of Nathan Drake tapped into my love for story in a way video games never had before. It’s a game that is not without flaws, specifically in its mechanics, and yet it’s deeply special to me. I couldn’t imagine any game ever dethroning it from my top 3… until Uncharted 4 came along.
Uncharted 4 does away with the flaws that plagued the acclaimed series. It rebalances its gameplay to focus on exploration and puzzle solving, foregoing the previous gauntlets of bland shooting galleries. It removes the supernatural final enemies in favor of Libertalia’s crumbling, forgotten world: a world built on ideals and corrupted by failures.
This notion of failed idealism weaves throughout the game, peeling back the trappings of the Indiana Jones-esque adventure series to present us with something more mature. Nathan Drake has grown up. His life has evolved from the lovable rogue racing through the streets of god knows where. He’s become a legit businessman. He’s become a husband. He has built a new life on the ideals of love and family, until his past drags him back down and his ideals crumble before our very eyes.
In the game’s best moment, it tells the story of Drake and Elena reconnecting in the wake of Drake’s lies. There is, of course, nuanced reasons to Drake’s deception, but that’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is two people, driving around in a car, hoping they can brush past the damage at their relationships core but knowing they have to work through it. Drake had tried to build an idealized life by ignoring the truth of who he an Elena are. Now he and Elena, in partnership, must learn to build a true life – a life of understanding who each other is. They will not be another Libertalia.
A lot can and should be said for the sheer excellence of Celeste’s design on a gameplay level. The game’s ability to keep evolving on its mechanics in order to stay challenging and fresh is exquisite, and when you tie that in with the beautiful music and art design of the game? Chef’s kiss. Yet these aren’t the moments that stand out to me when I think about Celeste. Instead, I think of Madeline confiding in Theo about her mental health struggles. I think about Mr. Oshiro, hurt and lost in his hollow hotel. I think about Madeline and her reflection, struggling to come to terms with each other. More than all that, there’s one image that holds in my mind: a feather, balanced on a breath. It’s these slower moments, these moments of character, that enrapture me.
This isn’t to say that Celeste has a narrative that matters more than its gameplay. In fact, I think Celeste is unique in how effectively its gameplay feeds into its narrative. I feel the torment within Mr. Oshiro and the strife between Madeline and her reflection because I’m playing through these conflicts made manifest through mechanics. It’s a testament to this game that, while the moments that stick with me are the slower beats between gameplay, it is only through how perfectly honed every element of this masterpiece is that those instances carry such heavy weight. Celeste is a triumph that proves the immense potential of the medium as a whole – even in one of its oldest genres – and I will cherish it forever.
Journey is the best game ever made.
Oh, I need to say more? Okay. Video games are a weird art form, especially when you’re trying to compare works within the medium. Making my top 10 movies of the decade list wasn’t easy (I’m still second guessing decisions and will continue to ad infinitum), but there were certainly less variables to consider with that art form. Some games are great stories. Some games pull you into a world you love. Some games are mechanically fun and challenging. How do you compare a game that you play for a social experience to a game that delivers a narrative you really connect with, even if its actual gameplay mechanics are second rate?
I have no idea.
What I do know is that Journey transcends this question. It tells a narrative through its gameplay. Through its mechanics, visuals, music, and simple moments of human connection, it tells the story of life itself in a way nothing has before. This game is the coalescence of the power of narrative with the power of mechanics. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever experienced, and in case you’re wondering: yes, it does make me cry. Every damn time.