The 2010s saw an embarrassment of riches when it came to video games. From stellar AAA releases to indie sleeper hits, the decade saw no shortage of great games come and go. Narrowing down ten for this list has been difficult for me, as there was no shortage of worthy candidates. Alas, we live in a world where my brain insists on ranking things. I’m sorry for that, world.
Here are my top ten favorite games of the decade. The only criteria I have for this list is how I feel looking back on them. These aren’t necessarily my most played games, but they are the ones that have stuck with me or planted themselves in my brain the most.
And if you find yourself disagreeing with this list, maybe Johnny Malloy has an opinion you agree with more. Check out his top ten favorite games of the decade here.
10. Spec Ops: The Line (2012)
I don’t like military shooters.
I used to play Call of Duty at my friends’ houses and found myself enjoying them well enough, but the multiplayer always frustrated me (and I will fully admit it’s because I suck at it) and the campaigns usually left me wanting in some way (although I will admit that 4 is a great game for a variety of reasons).
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to find the genre… disturbing. Often times, there is a sense of righteous jingoism that feels like it borders on brainwashing, almost like you’re playing some form of propaganda where America is usually the unquestionably good side and whatever your opposing force happens to be deserves to not just be stopped, but annihilated and ground into the dust with the most extreme prejudice possible. The reason I say 4 is a great game is because it wasn’t really a power fantasy like the rest of the series would become. Instead, it feels like a really dark look at how modern war is messy, and how there are no real winners. The subsequent games in the Modern Warfare sub- series retroactively ruined that. But that’s beside the point.
This leads us to Spec Ops: The Line.
For all intents and purposes, Spec Ops: The Line was advertised as just another military shooter, with the unique setting of an environmentally ravaged Dubai being its main selling point. This led to the game’s fairly low sales. After all, on the surface, it did very little to differentiate itself from other wannabe Call of Dutys. So imagine the surprise when those who actually bought it found out what it really was.
Spec Ops: The Line is the anti-military shooter. The main character, Walker, starts off on a quest to find the man responsible for supposedly bringing Dubai to its knees and throwing it into anarchy. But as the game goes on, Walker and his squad commit increasingly horrible acts, including one extremely infamous scene that plays so brilliantly on the military shooter trope of using a piece of computerized ordinance that, even when you know the scene is coming, it still manages to shock and awe in the worst possible way.
It uses violence not to empower, but to point out how messed up the very idea of military shooters are. War is brutal, and really, there are no winners. Those left alive often have physical and mental scars that can’t be fully healed. It shows how the level of violence and mass murder on display in your average CoD campaign would severely alter a person’s mental state. It shows how unwavering belief in “the mission” and your country will lead to pure destruction. It makes you realize, “Hey, all the ‘bad guys’ I’ve been decimating are actually people just like me.” It does all of this while telling a pitch black, memorable story about Walker and his crew. Plus, it has one of the single greatest lines of video game dialogue ever: “It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him.”
The game has been talked to death at this point, but I’ve deliberately avoided spoilers because, if you somehow haven’t played the game, you need to. It has its gameplay flaws for sure, but when the story is as memorable, bold, and well written as it is, you’ll likely look past them like I did and see the stellar piece of video game storytelling lying underneath.
9. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2010)
So I might be cheating with this one a little bit. The game was initially released in Japan in 2009, but it dropped in the US in 2010. My list, my rules. I’ll allow it.
Anyways, 999 is the brilliant beginning to the severely underrated Zero Escape series. In this first installment, 9 people trapped inside a ship are told will sink after 9 hours. To escape, they have to solve escape-room puzzles and use bracelets on their wrists to split off into teams using a complicated math formula according to the number on the door. They are told and shown that, if someone without the proper number goes through the wrong door, there is a bomb inside that will explode.
Like many other adventure games, 999 uses multiple playthroughs to build mystery and suspense. Your first time through, you will encounter a bad end no matter what. It’s destined to happen. You’re also likely to run into several of the game’s many mysteries along the way, including character backgrounds and questions of the bigger picture, like who everyone really is and why they’ve been put in this place.
Like the above entry, I’m going to avoid spoilers, but anyone who loves a good science fiction story owes it to themselves to play this game, if not the whole series. It gradually reveals its big mystery, paying off almost every question with a totally unexpected answer that will make you reflect on the game as a whole. There are brilliant twists found in here, and it establishes the greater mythology of the series the next two entries, Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma, would expand on to great effect.
I put this game above the others for a variety of reasons. For one, it tells what is ultimately a self-contained, completely satisfying story, whereas the other two don’t really stand on their own that well. Its focus is tight, with great puzzles, memorable characters, and a story that is complex without being convoluted. As much as I love the series, certain elements don’t necessarily pay off as well as they could have in the third installment (although it’s still an overall satisfying conclusion).
Regardless, this is a great story driven adventure game that will likely make your brain leak out your ears more than once. And I mean that in the best possible way.
8. Dark Souls 3 (2016)
FromSoftware gave the industry the biggest middle finger possible with their seminal Demon’s Souls. In a world where big releases were becoming increasingly linear, holding the player’s hand every step of the way for the sake of telling a heavily scripted story, they released a harder-than-David-Lynch-thinking-of-doppelgangers ARPG with an unforgiving set of mechanics. It was a huge success, against all odds. The problem was that Demon’s Souls was a PS3 exclusive.
So they made a follow-up using the same mechanics called Dark Souls that received such near universal critical and commercial acclaim that I’m convinced it’s the only reason mainstream releases come out with any level of challenge these days. They showed the world that people enjoy tough games if they feel success is always within their grasp. They ushered in a new era of games where dying means you have to make it back to the spot you fell in order to get your important resources back. Not only that, they brought environmental storytelling to the mainstream, with a whole world’s full of backstory told through item descriptions, enemy locations, and every other part of the game that makes it a game.
But to me, the third game is the best one.
Don’t get me wrong, the first was great in its own right, but there’s no denying that it had a lot of rough edges (although less so than Demon’s Souls, which can feel archaic at times). It has a great setting in Lordran, unforgettable bosses, and a great sense of challenge. But, to me, 3 was where FromSoftware smoothed out the wrinkles. The game is still extremely challenging, but the world design is tighter than ever, the build options varied, the lore more disturbing, and the bosses more balanced than before (even if the DLC fight against Midir can absolutely die in a bucket of flames). It may have been a reiteration of what came before it, but that allowed FromSoftware to learn from their mistakes of the past and deliver the most “Souls” Souls game on the market.
Many try to emulate what makes these games so great, and a few have even succeed. But the reason From has spent this decade making nothing but games of this type is simply because they are the best at it. And the third game is, to me, representative of everything that makes them such a beloved developer.
7. To The Moon (2011)
I always hesitate when I hear that a game’s story is heart wrenching. It takes a lot for me to feel something at a game’s story, and I find a lot of the time most people equate heart wrenching with “depressed, milquetoast characters going through bad things.” It’s why I took a while to play To The Moon.
And boy, was it heart wrenching.
Using a fantastic high concept, To The Moon tells the story of Drs. Eva and Neil granting a dying man’s last wish. They work for a corporation that uses a device to go into dying people’s dreams and help them grant their wish by changing their memories. It’s very Inception-esque, but instead of a heist, it’s a personal drama about Johnny Wyles.
For reasons that are at first unclear even to Johnny, he has always wanted to go to the moon. Something inside of him has yearned to go there since the death of his lifelong love, River. Eva and Neil go backwards through his memories to piece together why he wants this and how they can accomplish it. Along the way, you learn about his life, its ups and downs, and more about his relationship with River.
Like other entries on this list, this is best played going in not knowing how things turn out. There are so many startling and personal revelations that it’s impossible to discuss the plot further without spoiling it. But suffice it to say, this game pulled on my cold, borderline-dead heart strings. It’s a simply wonderful tale of life and how love can be universally felt by anyone despite their differences, and it uses its magnificent soundtrack to convey emotions in a way that words simply can’t. It contains a scene that rivals the Log Lady’s death in terms of being difficult to sit through without tearing up using the above linked song.
I played the game at a dark time in my life where I wasn’t very happy, and it showed me that, despite the world being crappy, there’s plenty to love in it, too.
For a cold-hearted asshole like me, I can’t think of higher praise than that.
6. Deadly Premonition (2010)
Perhaps the messiest game on this list, and one of the messiest ever made, Deadly Premonition’s ambition overreached its grasp. It tells the story of Special FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, a strange man who frequently talks off screen to someone named Zach, commenting on the events of the game or even just shooting the breeze with this disembodied person during long drives. He is called to the town of Greenvale to investigate the bizarre murder of Anna Graham, a young woman everyone seemed to love. She was cut open and displayed on a tree in the forest. Detective Francis York Morgan, or York for short, must investigate the strange town and its stranger inhabitants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Yes, this game leans heavily into our beloved Twin Peaks for its setup, but its biggest strength is that it really goes off on its own path, with the story taking numerous unexpected twists and turns that really sets it apart from its television inspiration. There are some truly memorable, unique, crazy moments that you’re likely to never forget, and it all culminates in one of the most genuinely affecting and emotional endings in a game I’ve ever seen.
On the surface, the game is deeply flawed. The graphics look like they came from a game straight out of 2003. The driving physics feel like you’re controlling a bull wearing roller skates across ice. The shooting feels too loose, with wonky aiming and poor hit detection. The facial animations are borderline disturbing for how weird they get. The soundtrack, while good, shows up at the weirdest and sometimes inappropriate times. There are numerous systems, such as hunger, exhaustion, and doing your laundry, that feel underdeveloped, as if the games writer and creator, Hidetaka Suehiro (known as Swery), wanted to give them more of a purpose than they ended up having. And the bugs. Oh me, oh my, the bugs. The game as a whole is on the easy side, with the only deaths coming from the quick time events. But really, the hardest thing about the game is getting around the bugs. Playing on PC, I had to fiddle with numerous settings at various points in the game in order to continue.
Here’s the thing: annoying bugs aside, all of the other design choices somehow add to the game’s atmosphere. The facial animations are downright hysterical. The inappropriate music gives the game a bizarre surreal edge where you’re not sure how to feel, but you’re engaged. The combat is paced out between bouts of exploring the town so you never grow sick of one or the other. And driving it all is a genuinely compelling narrative about darkness in the far corners of the world, and overcoming the trauma of the past. In other words, the game would somehow be worse if it was better.
It’s tough to describe without just playing the game for yourself. But it’s a magnificent thing, unlike anything else in gaming.
5. Xenoblade Chronicles (2011)
And to think that America almost didn’t get this wonderful epic of a game. This was one of three games that were part of Operation Rainfall (along with Pandora’s Tower and The Last Story, the former of which I haven’t played and the latter of which I remember enjoying quite a bit), an online petition to bring over these interesting, unique looking, Wii-exclusive RPGs to the west. And thank god it worked, because Xenoblade Chronicles is, to me, one of the JRPGs, right up there with the classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.
Taking place on the corpse of a titan known as the Bionis, Xenoblade Chronicles follows Shulk, a bright young man who seeks to unlock the secrets of the Monado, a strange sword that cripples most of the people who wield it. He spends his days researching and having fun with his lifelong friends Reyn and Fiora, members of the last standing human colony on the Bionis. It turns out that long ago, the Bionis engaged in a deadly fight with the other titan in the world, the Mechonis, which housed unthinking machines. Now the machines are back, slowly taking over the last remnants of organic life on the Bionis. It isn’t long before Shulk’s home is attacked, Fiora is killed, and Shulk and Reyn set out on a quest for revenge.
Of course, like any great fantasy story, this is merely a spring board for exploring a massive, unique, and wonderful world filled with secrets, revelations, and wonderful characters. The world and backstory is unique, and by the end, everything has changed in enormous ways. It really does define the word epic, with its wonderful story, great cast, and huge, ambitious world to get lost in.
The game utilizes a “single player MMO” type of combat, where basic attacks are done automatically and doing so fills your special attacks. You use special attacks to build a chain attack bar, which is where all three characters build damage with their own abilities. It sounds more complicated than it is, and the game does a good job of making sure almost any party combination is viable. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on Switch would later expand on this battle system to good effect, but that game has much more of a learning curve than this one does.
Perhaps the best thing about this game is its pacing. It took me 92 hours to beat my first time through, but that’s because I spent a lot of time doing optional side quests and exploring the massive areas on offer. I’ve seen people say they beat it in 40, and others say it took them 150. The game, in other words, lets you move at your own pace. It doesn’t rush you. It doesn’t force you to continue the story. But it also lets you simply go through each beat and ignore everything else if you so choose. I love JRPGs, but even I will admit that some of them feel like they don’t respect the player’s time. XC does, and it lets you play for as long or as little as you like.
It’s a grand, epic, game with an amazing soundtrack that’s the equivalent of a book series with ten volumes and each one is 800 pages apiece. It’s rich with story and world building, boasts a terrific cast, and lets the player loose in an interesting world you want to explore. And funny enough, this leads me to my next game…
4. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
I love the Zelda series to death. It’s my favorite franchise in all of gaming and holds my favorite game of all time amongst its ranks. And while a few of the entries travel off the beaten path, it’s safe to say that a lot of the games are a reiteration of the same formula with some kind of added gimmick. After the hit 3DS entry A Link Between Worlds in 2013 let players loose in a familiar version of Hyrule giving them the opportunity to tackle objectives the way they see fit, some magnificent bastard at Nintendo decided that the next game in the series should burn all that we know and love about the franchise to the ground. It was a huge risk, but it paid off, because Breath of the Wild is the best open world game of the decade and arguably the best of all time, and it all boils down to one word: choice.
Open world games are a dime a dozen these days. It seems like every month or so a new game comes out boasting a MASSIVE SANDBOX and A VARIETY OF OBJECTIVES and the ABILITY TO PLAY IT HOW YOU WANT. More often than not, though, these games are bizarrely restrictive. They’ll wall you off from going to certain areas of the game until you reach the required story beat, and their missions are linear as they come, with strict defeat conditions. They claim to be open, but they aren’t open.
It’s why Breath of the Wild is so great. It’s not flawless, not by any means (the bosses are kind of pushovers, save for one, and the game’s DLC wasn’t amazing), but it trusts players to find their own way in a GIGANTIC world filled with discoveries big and small. It’s the mission statement Miyamoto made with the first game, only in a fully realized, beautiful world that is scary but empowering. After you pass the tutorial area, The Great Plateau, you can go anywhere. Want to run and activate every single Sheikah Tower to uncover the whole map? Go for it. Want to run straight to Calamity Ganon and try to take him on with some tree branches? Ill advised, but you can do it! Want to ignore the 120 optional shrines completely and instead rely on hearty food items to bolster your health with temporary buffs? This game has you covered.
It’s so simple that it’s a wonder another developer didn’t try it first, but all Nintendo did was create a great game world and gave players the tools to explore it as they see fit. And the world isn’t copy/ paste, either. There are landmarks scattered everywhere, meaning you never quite know what you’ll find next. From ruined bridges, to long forgotten battlegrounds, to small pockets of civilization, even the smallest discovery feels significant, because you weren’t guided to it. You let your natural curiosity take over, and you were the one who discovered it. I cannot understate enough how wonderful it was first finding Kakariko Village in the mountains, or finding my way to Zora’s Domain by climbing mountains instead of taking the main path.
And to top it all off, the game tells an emotionally resonant story of Link redeeming himself for his failure 100 years prior. After he lost the battle with Calamity Ganon, he was sealed away by Zelda. When he awakens, he must rebuild himself from the ground up and uncover memories of what happened a century ago. It’s in these memories that the game emphasizes how important defeating Calamity Ganon is. It shows the world as it once was, and even in the fun, whimsical scenes, there’s a heavy air of dread hanging over everything, because we, the player, already know how this part of the story ends. It lends a sense of purpose to the exploration. And, maybe this is a controversial statement, but this game features my favorite rendition of the Zelda character. She is still divine and powerful, but unlike other incarnations, who were rather bland, she displays doubt, fear, regret, and anger at her being forced into a role she never asked for. It’s much more compelling than her usual “stoic wise woman” shtick.
Breath of the Wild changed everything for open world games, and is the standard all games in the genre will be measured against for years to come. Yes, I’m very excited for the sequel.
3. Hotline Miami (2012)
Hotline Miami is kind of like what would happen if you force fed David Lynch a bunch of cocaine and made him watch Drive ten times in a row, then told him to make a video game. It is pure, unfiltered gameplay set to one of the best soundtracks in gaming history. And it’s also an interesting statement on the nature of violence and how it consumes a person.
You play as a man colloquially named Jacket, as he is called up by a mysterious organization and told through non-explicit messages to go to various locations and kill everyone inside the building. It’s simple and extremely effective. The story unfolds in a hallucinatory, unpredictable way, with events becoming less and less clear as the game goes on.
But man, is the gameplay air tight. You move quickly, viewing things from a top down perspective, and must make use of the various weapons in each level to wipe out the enemy. Enemies die in one hit, but so do you, meaning you need to move fast and make short work of everyone who stands in your way. You might be tempted to play the game cautiously, ducking in and out of cover, and that’s a totally viable way to go about things. You’ll come to realize, though, that the game encourages reckless, dangerous behavior with its combo system and unique level layouts. In my pursuit of getting every single achievement in the game, there were times where I would forget to breathe because I was so razor focused on making it through in one piece with a high score.
And like many games on this list, it marries its gameplay with its storytelling to comment on how violence comes to define a person. Like Jacket, the player can easily get lost in the bloodshed, drawn in by the hypnotic tunes and fast pace of the gameplay. It’s only after the last enemy is dead in each level that you realize the mountain of corpses you’ve made. You’re forced to walk back to the beginning of each level with no music, observing the nasty, gory aftermath of your exploits. I know I mentioned earlier that I don’t like military shooters because of their exploitation of real life violence for the sake of power fantasy, and you could argue that this game does the same thing. However, its message is ultimately one about the negativity of violence (Jacket loses everything and is ultimately arrested for his crimes and put in prison in the sequel). And its style is so unrealistic that it’s tough to see it in the same hyper real way that military shooters make you view the carnage.
The game’s sequel is also great, with a soundtrack that is arguably even better than the first, but this one feels like a tighter, more focused experience. The second game somewhat suffers from wide open level design that can lead to off screen deaths that frustrate, and its story, while intriguing and engaging, is kind of all over the place. This game has tight level design, perfectly designed for the anarchic play style it demands from the player. It’s stuck with me for being such a short game, and to this day, is the only game I’ve ever gotten every achievement for. That’s saying something.
To top all that off, this game was instrumental in bringing hyper-violent, challenging, retro-style games to the forefront of gaming, and that’s what publisher Devolver Digital has more or less built their indie empire on. AND it was one of many contributing factors to bringing synth wave into the spotlight, and that is something that everyone should be grateful for.
2. Cry of Fear (2013)
I’ve written about this game before on this site, and for good reason. It is the horror game of the decade, bar none. It has everything I love about the genre- a terrifying, oppressive atmosphere; fantastically designed monsters that are instantly iconic; a good soundtrack; and replayability in spades thanks to its variety of unlockable content.
You play as Simon, a young man suffering from depression and other offshoots of mental illness. Walking home one night, he is hit by a car, and transported to another city block, where he tries to make it home in one piece. The problem is the streets have become filled with monsters who are all out to get him. The story is serviceable, aping Silent Hill 2 in a big way with its large amount of symbolism, but it’s the gameplay and sense of atmosphere that make this game so wonderful.
The feeling it gives the player can best be described as follows: you’re young, maybe 19, and wandering the streets at 3 am for no particular reason, unsure of what to do with your life and where you want to be. At that very moment, you feel so, so alone, even though there are people in your life who are willing to support you. You don’t feel sad, per se, but you feel a sense of melancholy at the world around you. You stand under a streetlight, wondering if you should text a friend to see if they’re up, but your phone has died. You continue walking and thinking, until you hear footsteps behind you. You continue walking, and so do the footsteps, and then the individual behind you starts humming a song. The song reminds you of when you were younger and happier, without a care in the world, and you start to wonder where that innocent kid went. Then the footsteps stop right behind you, and you feel hot breath down your neck.
It’s a unique, incredible horror game, one that I could play again and again, finding something new to appreciate each time. Because when it’s not capturing that feeling of lonely isolation I described above, it’s simply being downright terrifying. It deserves more attention that it’s gotten. It started my love affair with exploring the far corners of Steam in search of new and obscure titles, but nothing I’ve found, save a few, have come close to matching the experience Cry of Fear gave me.
And it’s free. So there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.
Before the final entry, here are some honorable mentions. This is just a list of great games that I’ve enjoyed this decade. This is by no means comprehensive, and I’m sure I’m leaving plenty of other great titles from this decade out.
Batman: Arkham series
The Binding of Isaac (in its various incarnations)
Close Your Eyes
Dead By Daylight
Dead Space 2
The Devil Came Through Here Trilogy
Etrian Odyssey 4: Legends of the Titan
Just Cause 2 and 3
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and World
Pokemon Black and White
Risk Of Rain
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Steamworld Dig 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Again, there was an embarrassing amount of fantastic games this decade, too many to name here. And without further ado…
1. LISA: The Painful RPG
Another game I’ve written about before. LISA is everything great about gaming. It is a dark, haunting, and often hilarious journey through the ruins of humanity that balances more tones than should be humanly possible, and it does so while making it all feel cohesive. It’s also just a damn great turn based RPG in its own right.
LISA tells the story of Brad Armstrong, a man with a seriously troubled past who, like so many others, is addicted to a drug called Joy in the post-apocalyptic setting of Olathe, which has left only the men of the world behind. There are no women to be found. Until one day, Brad discovers a baby girl and decides to raise her in secret, away from the men who would do her harm. But harm finds them anyway, as she’s taken by a warlord’s army after she enters her tweens. Brad sets off to carve a bloody path through Olathe to save her.
This game is the not-hero’s journey. It expertly dissects the notion of heroism in video games being directly correlated to violence, and like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami, shows how violence is cyclical in nature and ruins a person. Brad went through some extremely traumatic and disturbing things as a child at the hands of his abusive father, and this informs everything he does throughout the game. It’s clear from the get go that he has problems, but as the game goes on, whether or not he could ever conceivably be called a hero is called into question because he commits various horrible acts that rival the actions of everyone else in terms of how depraved they are. By the end, you’ll question whether good and evil are even real, or if they’re simply concepts humans create so they can tell themselves they’re good. It will make you feel empty and hollow.
But it does all this through a humorous lens, which arguably makes the darker elements stand out even more. Developer Dingaling has fun with the world, filling it with horrific Joy mutants, perverts, weirdos, and sometimes ghosts. Every joke sticks the landing, and every one is a laugh with a single tear in your eye, because the humor is mostly derived from how pathetic the world has become. Not once does the darkness and humor clash. Instead, one serves the other brilliantly.
And even ignoring how it expertly deconstructs video game heroism, it is just a fantastic story in its own way. The world feels unique, unlike any other you’ll see. It uses sound to superb effect, with some scenes unfolding with no sound or dialogue at all, and that somehow makes them more effective. Its characters are three dimensional, and you learn their backstories as the game goes on, and when you do, you almost immediately sympathize with them despite the terrible things they do. It all pays off in a finale that is simply unforgettable, driving home the game’s ideas with a single line of dialogue that makes the player question everything that came before. It’s got great, challenging turn based gameplay to boot, with difficult story decisions drastically altering your experience depending on how you answer them.
If you haven’t played LISA: The Painful RPG, and you value video game storytelling, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever played, and it will likely stick with you like it did me.
Here At the End
And there we have it, folks. Please sound off in the comments about your favorite games from this decade. Remind me of some of the titles I may not have given attention to, and also feel free to tell me how wrong I am.
As we bid farewell to the 2010’s and all the great games it brought us, let’s look ahead to the future with as much optimism as we can muster in these uncertain times. Here’s hoping the 2020’s are better.