Our Games of the Decade - Josh
Senior editor Josh showcases his picks for best of the decade
This list started at about 100 games. Seriously. Trying to whittle this down to ten was a long and painful process. There were games that were probably the best games of their year that didn’t hold up when compared to runner-ups of other years. There are games that I’m obsessed with that just didn’t make the list. There are games that I love but just couldn’t go back to because they came out so recently. To make my personal list, I was looking for games that stuck with me, that I found myself talking about and thinking about constantly. Games that I could play over and over and recommend to just about anyone, whether they’ve played games for years or were picking up a controller for the first time. What games were essential to the last decade? Which titles helped shape genres and defined generations?
First, here were the hardest games to cut, and are honorable runners-up:
The Banner Saga, Red Dead Redemption II, The Stanley Parable, The Walking Dead, Portal 2, Crusader Kings 2, Stardew Valley, X-COM: Enemy Unknown, Rayman Legends
And now, here are the ten games my friends are tired of hearing me talk about, ten games I never get tired of playing, ten experiences that defined video games for me over the last decade.
#10. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Ninja Theory has been making unique character action games for years. They might have the most solid track record of any studio in the action genre, but Hellblade redefined what the action game could be. So often these games use their stylish flair for over-the-top spectacle, but Hellblade draws you in close for an intimate eight-hour trek through Hell. It might be the first action game to explore human vs. self, as its major conflict revolves around the main character’s psychosis. There are so many ways Hellblade could have gone wrong and yet at every turn the right decision was made, resulting in one of the best action games I’ve ever played. I can’t wait to see the sequel.
#9. Until Dawn
Mechanically, this is probably the worst game on this list. If I was to make an objective list of the best games of the decade, Until Dawn probably doesn’t even make the cut. But this isn’t an objective list - this is my list - and I love Until Dawn. Until Dawn is perhaps my favorite multiplayer game ever, even though it’s ostensibly single-player. I’ve played the game so many times with different friends, sometimes hot-seating for specific characters, sometimes just passing the controller around, sometimes having one person play while everyone yells the choice they want to make. It’s a movie night with your friends, but instead of simply yelling at the TV, you finally have control over the outcome. It’s a game that you can show someone who has never played a game before and watch them fall instantly in love with it - and that makes it special.
#8. Divinity: Original Sin 2
I’ve played my fair share of cRPGs this decade. From Shadowrun to Pillars of Eternity, to Disco Elysium. I’ve seen so much homage to Torment and Baldur’s Gate, it’s been a bit much at times. But nothing has come close to Divinity: Original Sin 2. I think about the characters in this game at least once a week, and the absolutely ingenious idea of being able to craft specific story beats into the narrative if you play as one of the Origin characters. Lohse’s battle with a demon sharing her very being, Sebille’s magical enslavement that is an analogy for consent, The Red Prince’s battle for honor - the cast in this game is the second-best of the decade. Add in the demanding combat and tricky puzzles and I was absolutely smitten with this game and like it more every time I play it.
#7. Her Story
Her Story single-handedly revitalized the FMV genre and put Sam Barlow on the map as one of the best writers in video games. That isn’t quite enough to warrant calling it one of the best games of the decade, but it’s one of those games that I found myself playing over and over again with friends and family, because solving the riddle of Hannah involves one of the rare stories and mechanics that transcend the keyboard and spill into notebooks and conversations. You don’t need reflexes or skills to experience Her Story, you just need to pay attention and love a good mystery. Her Story transcends the medium and proves that sometimes the simplest mechanics can be used to tell incredible stories.
#6. Persona 5
I probably listen to the Persona 5 soundtrack once a week - but this game is more than catchy tunes and fun keyboard riffs. Persona 5 is a story of children written off by society, children who turn to crime because it’s expected of them, but then use that crime to better the world that has marginalized them. None of this is better represented than in the main character’s relationship with Sojiro, who goes from disdaining the character to forming a familial bond with them. The themes of bonding and found family extend into the combat where the links between characters can help players better strategize their attacks and use the abilities of characters to defeat monsters. I’ve played through Persona 5 twice and will likely do so again when the Royal edition launches next year. This game reminds me of the friendships and unique connection you can form when you’re still in school, discovering who you really are.
#5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
To many, the perception is that Skyrim is the predecessor to The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition and other open-world RPGs, but I don’t think that’s the case. While other RPGs might have admired Skyrim’s world-building, they never tried to replicate the immersion it creates. Skyrim’s unique ability to interact with every item, open every door, and run from one end of the world to the next is something unique to the game. While other RPGs go out of their way to make sure that random monsters don’t get in the way of the main quest or that you’re not too overpowered for certain areas of the world, Skyrim allows the player to crack it open like an egg and stick a fork in the yolk. The authored content, the dialogue, and the quest design don’t hold up today, but to-date no developer, even Bethesda Game Studios itself has allowed for their systems of AI, environmental design, and player freedom to messily clash together so uncontrollably. This allows Skyrim to have unique moments for every player in a shared world. Everyone knows the cities and mountains that make up the world, but due to the chaos that is Skyrim, everyone might have a different experience while visiting those cities and wandering those wilds.
#4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
There is no video game that has married authored quest design and open-world gameplay like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. A game that is absurdly ambitious in scope and yet managed to deliver on its promises. The story of Geralt’s journey to find his adopted daughter and then battle to save her is one that resonates like few games did this decade. This is a masterclass in narrative, marrying a main throughline with sub-quests in a way that players used to say was impossible. What might be most impressive about the game, is how many mechanics it provides to the player in the service of being a Witcher. Players can focus on potions and chemicals to give themselves an edge in a fight, craft their own armor sets, or loot enemies and rely on the economy of the world. You can spend hours playing Gwent or betting on horse racing. The balancing act of providing deep and engaging systems for players to interact with, but also allowing those systems to drop away in favor of a well-crafted narrative and interesting world is a herculean feat, and one that we may never see pulled off so well again.
#3. The Last of Us
The Last of Us set a new bar in video game cinematic storytelling and basically rolled out the game plan for Sony’s in-house AAA production for an entire console generation. Relying heavily on motion capture and tight writing to convey the emotions of the actors, the game tells a unique story of two people being pushed together not just for physical survival, but for emotional dependency and how they reach a point where the relationship is not easily untangled. Lying beneath the narrative is a harsh world where you must rely on the bits and pieces of a shattered society to kill your way forward. The game blends nerve-wracking stealth with bloody, personal violence to create the most uncomfortable action. The Last of Us is a brutal game, one that instead of resolving itself, shatters the characters before you, asking you to puzzle out your feelings. It’s a game that other developers have been chasing since it was released and players are desperate to experience again.
Journey may be the most perfectly-paced video game ever made. A fine balance between exploration and platforming that works together to create something that feels more like a religious experience than a video game. As you guide your character toward their end and rebirth, the experience turns into something both sacred and whimsical. Sections like sliding through the sand feel playful and light, versus navigating through the dark underbelly of the ruins that is tense and solemn. The game also allows for an element of randomness every time by pairing you with live players, often creating a powerful, intimate bond as you work together toward the end destination. Journey is perfect no matter how often you play games, how much time you have, or how serious you want to take the experience. It’s human, beautiful, scary, and fun - it’s almost the best video game I played this decade.
#1. Mass Effect 2
The original Mass Effect barely holds up. The decisions are a little too obvious, the graphics are a little too dated, the combat is a little too clunky. The only reason to play Mass Effect is to play Mass Effect 2. Coming out in January of 2010, Mass Effect 2 is as old as possible to be eligible for this list and yet it is still the best game of the decade. The themes of unity, intelligence, and the ties the bind, feel even more important now than when the game first launched. Telling a single human story in a game is an impressive feat, but Mass Effect 2 tells multiple in half the time of other RPGs. But my favorite experience with Mass Effect 2 was shared with my friends. We hot-seated the shooting and let another friend make the decisions, which led to a heart-breaking ending with beloved characters dying nasty, tragic deaths. The stakes of Mass Effect 2 are brutal, the consequences are real and unflinching. Every time I play the game I feel like I’m risking the happy ending I got the last time, but the journey through one of my favorite universes is so good I just have to play it one more time. I need to help Garrus battle the criminal underworld, reveal the truth of Jacob’s father, kill Samara’s daughter, help Liara become the Shadowbroker, and listen to Mordin singing show tunes. As Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda proved, it’s almost impossible to make games like Mass Effect 2 anymore. Too many features are required of AAA games and the 20-ish hour playtime feels breezy for an RPG by today's standards. Mass Effect 2 could only exist because of when it was made and who it was made by. It is easily the greatest game this decade, if not one of the best games ever.