What can I say except that it feels really good to finally be at the end of eight weeks of list-making fun. Every decade in the history of video gaming has seen massive technological and business practices, and the 2010s were no different. In the past 10 years, Nintendo had a rise and fall and rebirth between the 3DS, Wii U, and Switch. Microsoft and Sony switched places as the dominant home gaming system manufacturer, setting the stage for another epic console war to begin this fall. New innovations in the mobile, augmented reality, and virtual reality spaces created whole new ways to play (the first Kinect came out in 2010). Ten years ago, companies like EA tried to kill of used game sales with annoying online passes, nowadays they might have succeeded thanks to the creation of subscription services like Origin Access and Xbox Game Pass. Plus, now that every game is a “live service,” who can afford to sell their games anymore?
On the flip side, identifying as a “gamer” has never felt worse. For my whole life, I liked feeling part of a community, and I always championed the positive aspects of gaming. The Gamergate controversy really changed that, and personally, I never really recovered an interest in participating in online communities. Which is a shame, because I know there are a ton of great people out there. Most folks I meet a PAX Prime seem nice, there are plenty of writers and YouTubers I adore. But there’s this horrible, misogynistic, racist stink on gaming now that I’ll never be able to totally ignore. It feels like once the nerds realized they had the numbers and the power, they became even worse than the bullies. But enough about this sad thought, let’s talk about some of my all-time favorite games!
Honorable Mentions: Into the Breach, Slay the Spire, StarCraft II, XCOM: Enemy Unknown
My first (last?) spot goes to strategy games, and let me just say: I was heartbroken when Blizzard totally capitulated to the Chinese government last fall. I felt like I had no choice but to uninstall all their games in protest. It made 2019 the first year in a while that Hearthstone did not make my top 10 favorite games of the year, something it probably would have if I thought ethically it made sense to stick around. Because I was not tired of that game, each new expansion did an amazing job breathing new life and flavor into a genre I had never cared about: collectible card games. On top of being easy to learn but deep enough to stay interesting, Hearthstone had all those extra Blizzard touches that made it satisfying to play: the clean UI, the pleasant sound effects and music, and plenty of over-the-top visual effects. It’s a really great game that sucked a lot of money out of my wallet for nearly five years. And writing about it now makes me want to go back… Courage, Sean. Do it for Hong Kong.
Honorable Mentions: Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2, DOOM (2016), Halo: Reach
Somehow we’ve already made it to the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre. I don’t think FPS games will ever be as big as they were at the end of the 2000s, with games like Halo 3, (this first) Modern Warfare, and Left 4 Dead fundamentally defining what these games can be in this era. Instead, what we got in the 2010s was a refinement: Halo: Reach delivered the most complete, definitive Halo experience. Borderlands 2 tightened everything up and added a hilariously fun campaign and on the other end of the spectrum, 2016’s DOOM reminded us how fun it can be when a game is just about shooting demons. But for my money, nobody did it better than Respawn with their two Titanfall games. I mean, I was already sold on this franchise as soon as I heard “the guys who made Modern Warfare are making a new game with mechs.” But what surprised me was that it was just as fun to play as a pilot outside of my Titan, thanks to the emphasis on lightning-fast traversal. Sprinting into a slide into a wall run into a grappling hook up to a Titan is such a fun thing to do. It’s an aspect of Titanfall 2 that still is yet to be matched by another game in the industry, including by Respawn’s own Apex Legends. Plus, Titanfall 2 had a shockingly fun (and surprisingly emotional) campaign too, just to push it even further over the top. What a fucking shame this wasn’t the biggest hit of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, SUPER HOT, Super Mario Odyssey, Tetris Effect
These were my favorite puzzle games, platformer games, and puzzle-platformer games. I admit, sometimes this genre really frustrates me as I have to try to find a balance between my completionist desires and the fact that I’m not automatically amazing at them as soon as I pick up the controller. Even games like Celeste, which says straight-up don’t worry about collecting everything, still drive me mad because I REALLY WANT TO GET THAT STRAWBERRY. That said, this was a really great decade for Mario, who starred in some all-time great platformers: Super Mario Galaxy 2, 3D World, and Odyssey all could be argued to be the best game in the series. That said, I’m going to have to pick Portal 2 as my favorite in this group, because that game absolutely rules. In case you forgot, Portal 2 gave us Cave Johnson as voiced by American actor J.K. Simmons, and the best version of when life gives you lemons. It also added all sorts of new twists to using portals to solve puzzles, like bouncy goops and hard light bridges. Plus, they tacked on a whole freaking coop mode with two adorable robots and to make it work gave everyone a free second copy of the game and innovated cross-platform multiplayer along the way. They even got two new original songs, one from Jonathan Coulton and one from The National, which is quite good. Now that I’m thinking with portals again, are we ever getting a third one of these?
Honorable Mentions: Control, Gundam Breaker 3, Tomb Raider (2013), Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The counterpoint to FPS games are the third person shooters, which tend to focus on cinematic single-player campaigns and typically struggle to create exciting competitive multiplayer scenes. In fact, in the past 10 years I’d imagine only Gears of War 3 and Splatoon 2 really achieved any popularity thanks to multiplayer, although I’m just going off the top of my head here. But when you get down to it, this specific genre belongs to Naughty Dog, so it was just a matter of picking which of their big three gets the win. I liked Uncharted 3 as an end to that series, until Uncharted 4 came out and showed how satisfying an end for Nathan Drake’s story really could be (also, Nolan North and Troy Baker should be in more things together). But, as fun as those games are, The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s masterpiece. As much as Uncharted‘s cover-based combat clashed with the story, in The Last of Us it perfectly served the story and continuously ratcheted up tension even more. As fun and funny Nathan Drake is, that’s nothing compared to the emotional connection I made with Joel as he struggled with his grief and savage instincts. The Last of Us achieves moments of absolute terror and sublime beauty, all while actually being fun to play. That’s a helluva game.
Honorable Mentions: Bastion, Diablo III, Bayonetta 2, Devil May Cry 5,
Action-adventure games are fun because, like in real life, killing lots of bad guys feels great. Whether you’re doing it for the loot (Diablo III), the style (Devil May Cry 5), or just because it’s sexy (Bayonetta 2), it always feels good to get a massive arsenal of sharp and blunt objects and go to town on hordes of creatures that are definitely bad and must die. And look, I know that Dark Souls is my biggest gaming blindspot, and a glaring omission from this list, but that game tips the scales the other way and makes it too easy for the bad guys to kill you. No thanks, I just want to feel like a badass. Or, you know, I dad who’s trying his best. The God of War soft reboot/sequel has the best axe in the history of games, Leviathan, which is so fun to use you might even ignore his other weapons, the iconic chain blades that made the first three games in the series popular. On top of that, the game does this Birdman/1917 unbroken take thing that makes the performances feel more raw and the super-powered fights all the more awe-inspiring. In a decade of video game dads, Kratos somehow was my favorite.
Honorable Mentions: The various Jackbox Party Packs, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Towerfall Ascension
I love me a good party game, and the 2010s delivered plenty of those. I really good have made my whole list these games, as each of them feels like a little era of my life. Recently there was the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate era, which I guess is still going, before that were the Rocket League and Towerfall Ascension days, back in Colin and my apartment. But I want to go all the way back to when I was living at my parents’ house and starting grad school, when Rock Band 3 came out and everything clicked into place for that franchise, even though the genre was starting to wane in popularity. Rock Band 3 added two key features: vocal harmonies and keyboards, which made it the ultimate party game for Colin, John, and myself. The fact that they made it possible to import songs from all the other Rock Band games instantly meant we had a library of thousands of songs to choose from. So we played the hell out of it, to the point that all the instruments started to break down. Nowadays, I just have a Rock Band-shaped hole in my heart. Maybe Harmonix will find a way to fill it next gen?
Honorable Mentions: Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Monster Hunter: World, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Time to let the big dog eat: it’s RPG time. This is another genre that, for me in this last decade, was dominated by one developer. Naughty Dog is to third person shooters what Bioware is to RPGs, or at least was. I defend Mass Effect 3 as pretty good, and will fight passionately for Dragon Age: Inquisition, but Anthem really did destroy the studio’s credibility last year. But they had an amazing run, putting out plenty of amazing games, including some of the finest RPGs ever made, like their best game: Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 2 streamlined the series’ blend of RPG and shooter combat with a delightful mix of powers and gunplay, stripping out many of the more tedious aspects of the genre like complex skill trees or an overabundance of loot. I know that’s controversial, but I was all for it then and still think pretty positively about those decisions. What’s not controversial is the story, which saw Commander Shepard killed, brought back to life by a shady organization, and tasked with putting together a team for a suicide mission that will decide the fate of the galaxy. Assembling a team perfectly suited Bioware’s character-focused approach to storytelling, and the members of that team were all great and memorable. I don’t even mind Jacob, he’s all right. I mean, I’m not going to romance him or anything, but he’s a good dude to have around.
Honorable Mentions: Grand Theft Auto V, Horizon Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man (2018)
Every year there’s an amazing new open world game now. How is that even possible? How does it economically make sense for anyone to develop an entire world and the ability to do whatever and go wherever you want in it? As this genre continues to mature, the possibilities seem even more limitless – Red Dead Redemption 2 sure seemed to have every single aspect of cowboy life you could possibly want. That same year, Spider-Man showed us how far we had come since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the last big innovation in web-swinging. But if those games had once weakness, it’s that they inevitably force the player to rely on the map screen and the various points of interest on it. At a certain point in every open world game, I get tired of fucking around and just try to complete the story. Then, suddenly, the open world becomes a problem, as it turns into a chore to complete side quests and unlock new main campaign missions. The one exception is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which somehow makes it possible to do whatever you want, whenever you want to, and have it always be rewarding. Part of the magic is in how nothing is ever gated off, you could go fight Calamity Ganon right at the start of the game if you want. But the real joy is in how things just work with your tools the way you want them to: every goofy idea you have probably works. It’s so amazing, so let me get a little hyperbolic: this is my personal number three of the decade, but it is also the closest to perfect of any game on this list. It’s the best Zelda game and the 2010s game that I think will best stand the test of time. Do whatever you can to play this game.
Honorable Mentions: Beat Saber, Gone Home, Journey, The Walking Dead
This spot is for innovative/experimental/indie/VR games. Stuff that doesn’t easily fit into other categories, at least when it comes to the types of games I play. Early on in the 2010s, The Walking Dead blew me away with its fresh approach to adventure games and dark story with meaningful choices (they’ll remember that). Then there were games like Gone Home and Journey which I found deeply moving, even though there’s no violence in either games. Is that even legal? When it comes to VR, my favorites so far have been Beat Saber, Rez Infinite, and Star Trek: Bridge Crew, and I’m optimistic about the future of this platform, what with a new Half Life just around the corner. But if one game really changed my life this decade, it was Pokémon GO. Pokémon GO gives me a reason to get up and go for a walk every day – I’m literally rushing to finish this post this morning because there’s a Community Day event starting at 11 am. But as much fun as I had with the game these past few years, nothing compares to the summer of 2016 when everyone in the entire world started playing. That was a magic time, and the biggest bright spot in the black hole that was that year. Speaking of, this November you better fuckin’ Pokémon GO to the polls.
Honorable Mentions: Final Fantasy XIV, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Warframe
At the end of all things are the MMOs/online/games as a service games. It’s funny, because when I think about the 2010s in MMOs, the first thing that comes to mind is how I can’t enjoy World of Warcraft anymore. But I think that’s less a failure of that 15-year-old game and more just how good Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV have all been. That said, I’m really here for the games as a service games. Specifically, Destiny 2, which I guess is my favorite game of all time? I think it’s already my most-played game on Steam, by total hours, and it’s only been on Steam since October. I guess Destiny 2 just represents all the things I like about games: it’s got tight FPS combat, a sleek sci-fi aesthetic with plenty of mysticism and magic, and infinite hordes of goons to slaughter in the pursuit of epic loot. There also something magical about how Destiny is constantly being improved, is a constant work-in-progress that we all can tell is absolutely full of potential. It gives me hope in a hopeless time. In conclusion, let me once again quote Young Frankenstein: “Destiny! Destiny! No escaping that for me!”