OK, so here’s the actual list, complete with some friendly blurbs from some friendly people that I am friends with. Also a bunch of strangers. Friendly strangers!
Note: Sorry this took so long. Getting people together to write for it was a larger undertaking than I had at first assumed. It’s here, now, and here is the first part, as a refresher.
#15 Shadow of the Colossus. 2005, Team Ico. 32 points, 11 votes.
Brian: Shadow of the Colossus is an interesting game. I mean, these are all interesting games, but this game especially so. It’s not, in any way, a traditional “great” game. There are no demarcated levels. There’s no grinding, no mobs, no dialogue branches or epic choices. In fact, it’s just boss fights.
16 boss fights. Bosses of varying size, ferocity, and difficulty. 16 boss fights separated by long stretches of lonely exploration across a forbidden land that is somehow both lush and desolate. 16 boss fights that slowly cause you to question your role, to question the relatively straightforward premise the game presents you to start. 16 boss fights utterly awe-inspiring in their scope, their intensity and their melancholy. There’s a quiet beatitude to this game that is essentially impossible to replicate. A decade on, people are still searching for the hidden, buried secrets of this game. They are still wandering.
#14 Halo 2. 2004, Bungie. 32 points, 9 votes.
Brian: Halo 2 has an interesting legacy. On one hand, it’s hugely influential for some of the most deleterious trends in gaming: release events and multiplayer gaming. Halo 2 was one of the first HUGE game releases, an event anticipated by millions, preceded by news coverage and countdown clocks and trailers in movie theaters. It set records for single-day sales across all media and was a sign that video gaming was now a major industry. This is good. What came next isn’t (or at least isn’t always) a good thing, creating an industry with an incredibly short attention span, where every release is a major release and every shooter has thousands upon thousands of surplus copies that depreciate in value within weeks.
I don’t feel the need to discuss the potential negatives of an industry centered around online multiplayer, suffice it to say that relying on other people and their internet connections for fun is an inherently lazy design strategy.
The other half of Halo 2‘s legacy is that its online multiplayer is essentially unparalleled to this day, and outside of that, it’s the longest and probably most experimental Halo game, with dual protagonists, weird half-levels, dual wielding, all that jazz. It’s a very good game.
#13 Metroid Prime. 2002, Retro Studios. 34 points, 10 votes.
Brian: Metroid Prime is meticulously designed, in all aspects. Every person involved in its creation had the same ideas, the same ambition, the same drive.
Also, it’s damn gorgeous and damned fun. Fun in a way a lot of games aren’t really now and haven’t really ever been. Metroid Prime is layered so well, so consistently. Every corridor is jam-packed with things to do and things to look at. Every space is used to the fullest. Instead of most games where it occurs, backtracking is the point rather than an attempt at meager padding.
Also, Prime is almost wholly responsible for teaching me the importance of art design over pure graphical fidelity. When I first played it, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the in-game map, seeing a series of straight, boxy corridors and squared rooms on my map transform into looping, labyrinthine chambers, overflowing with detail and design. Someone had to think this game out, piece by piece, meticulously. Metroid Prime could not be an annual franchise, spit out every 12 months with little thought, little ambition and little artistic value. Metroid Prime is more than that. It’s the greatest GameCube game of all time, and one of the greatest of its or any generation.
#12 Batman: Arkham City. 2011, Rocksteady Studios. 35 points, 14 votes.
From Adam Koscielak:
I think this justification has to basically answer one question: Why City over Asylum? For me, it’s about vastness. I’m not one to hate “tight” games per se, and Asylum excelled at using the small area it had, I felt like Arkham City offered a more “Batman” experience, giving you a full use of his skills. Add to that the fact that the story felt a bit tighter than Asylum, and the ending surprised me — in a positive way, while leaving a lasting emotional mark. That’s something. That’s more than most games can say for themselves. That’s why it’s on my list.
From Tim Harkovich:
One major thing that struck me about Arkham City was its ability to be open world but tell a tight story that all flowed together. Arkham City does a wondrous job of telling a beautifully executed Batman story. The voice acting is something that really jumped out — the performances by Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman were some of the best in their careers. The Mr. Freeze boss fight is one of my top 5 favorite boss fights in my gaming history just because how fun and innovative it was. I genuinely never got bored playing this game. From chasing Riddler trophies to listening in on random thug dialogue, there was no shortage of things to keep me entertained. Arkham City is one of those games I still enjoy booting up and dusting off my 360 every so often for.
#11 Portal. 2007, Valve Corporation. 35 points, 11 votes.
From Leutrim Rexhaj:
It’s been almost a decade since it was included on the landmark release of The Orange Box (to this day the best video gaming purchase I’ve ever made), but it’s still hard to believe how impactful and inspirational Portal was. Looking back at reviews of Portal when it first came out, they all laud its tight gameplay, humor, and lovable characters, but perhaps lacked the hindsight we have now to truly appreciate just how Valve was able to take this well-made but straightforward puzzle game and build an entire universe from it. No, I don’t mean Portal 2 or how this game’s quirkiness infiltrated video game culture for years to follow — I’m teasing at the seemingly impossible task of developing a game as technically perfect as Portal, but throwing just enough hints, clues, and backstory to make you yearn for more.
You control Chell, the silent protagonist, as she navigates Aperture Science Laboratories aided enrichment center, an underground research facility controlled by GLaDOS, the infamously murderous AI. There’s no real plot to speak of, but GLaDOS’s innocuous remarks about murdering all of the facility’s inhabitants with neurotoxins and most illegible graffiti left by an unseen character whets your appetite to the Nth degree. What happened to Aperture Science? Who left this graffiti behind? What corrupted GLaDOS? What’s on the surface? Are there test subjects in other parts of the facility? Is this the same universe where Half-Life takes place? Some of these questions get answered, but this is a wholly unique way of building a universe, especially when compared to most other modern games, which flood you with ALL the information and context.
This use of negative space only fuels your passion for the game; it doesn’t detract from it. Less can be more, and Portal is proof. And while Portal 2 might be the “better” game (and as far as sequels that just try to be bigger and better go, Portal 2 is perfectly executed), Portal is perfect for what its ambition is. You don’t need to know everything to derive joy from it.
So while I might never revisit the game again in my life (though I will be revisiting certain moments on Youtube), it was a no-brainer for me to include Portal on my favorite games of the last 15 years list.
Brian: Portal is as close to perfection as any game on this list is likely to get. I don’t mean that it’s the best game here, or even the most important. Just that it’s the only game on this list, perhaps the only game I’ve ever played, that I can’t think of a way to improve. Is it too short? It lasts exactly as long as it means to. It is too easy? Sure, if you end up playing it a half dozen times. Which could be said about pretty much any game, save maybe Tetris. Which is the sort of game Portal ends up resembling after a while. A foundational experience that seems to have always existed, always brought its particular blend of puzzle solving, sardonic wit and flawless mechanical design to the table. And it always will.
This was a triumph. I’m making a note, here: HUGE SUCCESS. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
#10 BioShock Infinite. 2013, Irrational Games. 40 points, 14 votes.
From Hamad Alhassen:
Only a handful of games can boast that their exposition and art direction help drive the narrative as effectively as Bioshock Infinite. Its verisimilitude, as seen in the segregated restrooms and in Columbia’s more fortunate, mirrors Columbia’s similarity to early American Asian/Black/Native American racism. Many of the propaganda found in Columbia are callbacks to propaganda generated during the first World War. Voxophones, the game’s “audio logs,” provide even more rich detail that paints the in-betweens of the game’s lore. The anachronistic pieces of music and art are masterfully woven, and add another layer of depth and character to Columbia itself.
Despite all that, there’s much more to Bioshock Infinite. There’s Elizabeth, or as I call her, the New Age Alyx Vance. Most non-playable characters that join your along your quest usually follow you. Although you’re badass Booker DeWitt, Alyx leads you through the story and is usually a step ahead of you. Her movements, curiosity, and wonder are all incredibly natural as you watch her grow during your journey.
Oh yeah, there’s also the combat. Your variety of powers, or, “vigors,” allow you to kill hordes of enemies however you choose. Want to electrocute several targets at once? Go ahead. Would you like to thrust at enemies, sending them falling down Columbia several kilometers? Be my guest. The gorgeous and huge environment is not just for walking and exploring for, either. As a result, you are given set pieces that allow to strategize for each encounter and use the environment to your advantage.
Few sequels have actually improved upon the original’s design and goals. Bioshock Infinite, however, ascended higher than the monuments of Columbia.
#9 Halo: Combat Evolved. 2001, Bungie. 42 points, 14 votes.
Brian: You know, compared to a lot of other games here, what makes Halo: Combat Evolved great isn’t self-evident. In fact, I’d say out of every *great* game of the last couple decades, Halo: CE is the one least critically renowned or discussed. I’ve always wondered why that is, and I think it might be because what makes Halo great is less…artistic. It’s a greatly interesting looking game, and a greatly enjoyable one, but it’s hardly a triumph of narrative, dialogue or theme. What Halo: CE is, is just…solid.
Weighty, physically consistent vehicle sections, expansive, intricately designed levels, a great (great) soundtrack, adaptive and brutal AI, and most importantly, magnificently balanced combat. Everything in this game feels like it was *supposed* to be the way it is, and that’s no small achievement. There’s a thrilling sense of forward momentum in the game’s campaign. An almost cavalier sense of discovery mixed with rapid abandon, as though the game itself doesn’t know what comes next. It feels…canonical, in a way I’m still not sure I’ll ever be capable of describing.
#8 The Last of Us. 2013, Naughty Dog. 42 points, 12 votes.
Brian: I remember there being a pretty interesting conversation around The Last of Us after it came out, about the concept of “fun” and if it’s necessary for a great game to be fun. First off, of course it is, gaming is an extremely active medium, and enjoyment should be the first priority.
Second, of course The Last of Us is fun. It’s fun in the way the first few Resident Evil games were fun, as players had to balance mad scrambles for resources with desperate, all or nothing fights against ravenous enemies. The zombie genre was played out even before this game released in 2013, but that impactful, brutal gameplay, while certainly unsettling for some, made the whole experience feel a lot weightier and important than Naughty Dog’s other major effort in the 2000s, the Uncharted series.
The other thing that makes TLoU so good is the weird, paternal relationship between protagonists Joel and Ellie. Much better things have been written about it, but the stark realism of their forced interaction results in one of the most deeply affecting and powerful endings in the history of the medium, one of the few that doesn’t rely on cheap emotional manipulation and actually feels the equal of something like Chinatown or Taxi Driver in its simple yet emotionally ambiguous implications.
#7 Mass Effect 2. 2010, BioWare. 45 points, 14 votes.
From Kirk Henderson:
Mass Effect 2 is the best game of the last fifteen years.
I’m a little shocked having written that. There are games I’ve played and even enjoyed more. There are perhaps more ground-breaking or unique titles. Yet, when I consider the sheer volume of high-quality games from the last two or three generations of gaming systems, Mass Effect 2 stands out as the peak achievement in gaming.
The original Mass Effect was a brilliant mess. The core game mechanics, looking back, were God-awful. And yet, with Bioware at the helm, there was an original story and a universe that people wanted to learn about and explore. That there were multiple paths and styles of play to reach the end game only added to the appeal, despite the often clunky implementation.
Mass Effect 2 doubled down on nearly every successful element of it’s predecessor: better graphics, a broader story, sharpened game play mechanics focusing on tactical situations, and intensely strong character development. The literal sense that you were working towards saving the universe paired with the strong bond with the various NPCs resulted in a game I still think about despite not having played it in over four years. It was also extremely re-playable, with different combat styles and a variety of NPC story arcs that could result in a very different end game each time.
The journey in Mass Effect 2 remains intensely rewarding; mastering the game’s version of “magic” or gun play was such a satisfying feeling. Yet the ending to the game also plays a big part in my ranking. So many games assemble brilliant packages yet fail to stick the landing. Mass Effect 2‘s ending is better than most Hollywood movies. The ability to tie all of it together, from graphics to story to game play, makes Mass Effect 2 the best game of the last decade and a half.
Brian: Kirk touched on this a bit, but Mass Effect 2‘s strength comes from its ensemble. While certainly owing a lot to The Dirty Dozen (go ahead and guess how many characters there are in that selection screen), ME2 also goes a long way in embracing pretty much every sci-fi trope that has ever existed and using it for its own nefarious ends. Very little about these characters or their backstories is original (or even pretends to be).
What makes this game work is how these characters don’t exist on the fringes of the game’s narrative: they ARE the game’s narrative. Quick, tell me everything you know about Mass Effect 2‘s main antagonists, without describing them by their physical characteristics. They’re simply the plot device (albeit a plot device with a cool art design) that keeps the basic skeleton of an “epic quest” in place. In reality, ME2 is structured more like a television serial, with ebbs and flows, full character arcs fleshed out in small, bite size level portions, and a rich, nearly textual feeling of place, time and atmosphere pervading nearly every digital square inch.
The original Mass Effect has a tinge of utopian sci-fi to it. Of a beautiful future filled with gaudy one piece space uniforms and universal understanding. Your squadmates are representatives of their species, both literally and figuratively (given that this is the first game and everything is exposition). Mass Effect 2 is not that game. Mass Effect 2 is dirty and disgusting. So when you get to the end, you don’t care that the Collectors have less explicit character motivations than the average Marvel Studios villain. You care that you and your motley crew of mercenaries, convicts, assassins, rogue AIs and test subjects are storming this unholy place and burning out every bug sonofabitch unlucky enough to be in your line of fire.
#6 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. 2011, Bethesda Softworks. 47 points, 16 votes.
From Adam Koscielak:
Why is Skyrim on my list? Because it is Bethesda’s best game, and Bethesda’s incredible style of games has to be recognized within a list concerning games released in this century, as it very much defined it.
People love exploring, and there’s no better execution of an open world title than the one in Skyrim. What other game gives you as much freedom in your choices? I mean, after the tutorial level, you’re basically free to become anything from an assassin to a master craftsman. In the other games I’ve mentioned, you’re still the Inquisitor, still The Witcher, characters that even though you mold, you don’t really control. While in Skyrim you’re The Dragonborn, you don’t ever have to discover that. You can just walk away from all the Dragon talk and go be a werewolf. You can screw the main story and fuck around for 100 hours, and the game will still be fun due to the thousands upon thousands of quests (and I haven’t even touched the expansions yet — waiting for backwards compatibility for that). You’re never stuck doing something you don’t want to do after the first half-hour of Skyrim. And that’s awesome.
Being free to explore a huge, beautiful and wonderfully detailed world is more than enough to love this game. And while the plot is a little generic, and the voice acting leaves much to ask, in the end it’s all forgiven when you’re hiking up a huge mountain as the Chief Assassin, Head Mage, Boss Thief of Skyrim, who also happens to make the best swords in Tamriel.
Brian: Also this game has the best weather effects that have ever existed to this point.
#5 Super Smash Brothers: Melee. 2001, Nintendo EAD. 48 points, 16 points.
From Hamad Alhassen:
Possibly the most addictive fighting game of all time. Hailed as the most iconic and significant Smash Bros, and for good reason. The pace of the fighting is lightning quick and the technical skills to learn are almost endless. Even if you aren’t a demigod smash player, there’s several fun and interesting characters and stages that allow you to beat the snot out of Mewtwo as Mr. Game & Watch.
Smash Bros. Melee holds a special place in my heart because of the countless back-and-forth duels between my brother and I in Hyrule Temple and Final Destination. Some of my most treasured gaming memories are about my brother’s Sheik kicking around my Dr. Mario and Link. Although you could argue whether Smash 4 is more playable or not, Smash Bros. Melee had the biggest gameplay improvement jump from any sequel in the series.
Brian: Melee is interesting me not only because how joyous it is to play, but how deep it is. It’s probably the only “high-level” fighting game that’s just as fun to play for people who had never played as it is for the tournament types. Aside from the masturbatory nature of the trophy system, that’s probably the biggest takeaway from this sterling game.
#4 Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. 2003, BioWare. 54 points, 14 votes.
Brian: I honestly and truly think Knights of the Old Republic is the most well-written game of all time. It’s certainly the most consistently well-written game I’ve ever played. More importantly, this is the best Star Wars game of all time.
I’ve written about this a bit before, but what KOTOR does so well is take a lot of the most enduring Star Wars tropes and manipulate them to its own ends. The result is take on the franchise both startlingly unique and intensely familiar. KOTOR is, even by today’s standards, a pretty large game, one that exists as almost the platonic ideal of BioWare’s modular game design. It’s filled to the brim with memorable and well-written characters (even the bad or annoying characters are deliberately so, which is a sign of quality writing), memorable locations, and memorable moods.
It just feels like Star Wars, but on its own terms, mercifully divorced from the wave of prequel trash flooding the market in the early 2000s (though a lot of the games still managed to be good, to be fair). Simply, KOTOR is its own game, reliant upon only itself to tell its story, and yet still fitting in nicely with the Star Wars #brand as a whole. A magnificent game.
#3 Half-Life 2. 2004, Valve Corporation. 55 points, 15 votes.
Brian: Instead of trying to contextualize Half-Life 2 in the history of gaming, I’ll just talk a bit about why it’s my favorite game, unchallenged and unchecked.
I love the ambiance of this game, the feel of it. There’s a pressure that pushes on you, envelops you. How every level is immaculately paced and yet so very different. How Valve prove themselves master of all genres, from survival horror to squad combat to wasteland survival to vehicular escape to whatever the hell you call the last few levels. How the Citadel (pictured above) looms larger and larger as you advance towards it, until it takes up nearly half the screen, leering at you.
I love how well-written a game it is, and not always in the way you’d assume. Every major character has their own distinct way of speaking, from Kleiner’s jittery scientist to Barney’s affable everyman; the G-Man’s stilted, inhuman rasp, and especially Dr. Breen’s conciliatory, paternal erudition. I love how the player’s relationship with Alyx is equal parts protector and best bud.
Anyways, I love Half-Life 2. I love how it plays, how it looks, how it sounds, and how it feels to play. It’s one of my absolute favorite pieces of media, and while I understand how the two games that finished ahead of it beat it, part of me is still upset by it.
#2 Red Dead Redemption. 2010, Rockstar Games. 62 points, 19 votes.
From Adam Koscielak:
Red Dead Redemption might be Rockstar’s greatest achievement. It’s mature, the first truly mature game we’ve seen from Rockstar, interlaced with dark humour throughout. The feel is what makes the game, as well. You can never truly immerse yourself in the GTA World, because whichever fictional city you visit is a farcical satire, and you will be reminded of the fact that it’s a farce on every radio station, every billboard, by every character. I don’t mind that, but in the end, I’ve never walked away from a GTA game saying “Wow, the world pulled me in,” while in Red Dead Redemption, you’re in the Wild West, a place that is not only iconic, but always seemed to me to be gaming’s lost world. Red Dead singlehandedly claimed that environment for video games, and made The Wild West extremely fun, creating a hypnotic world you can’t help to try and remain a part of.
(Author’s note: RDR is also a satire, it’s just satire of stuff we have very little reference level for anymore. Pretty much every classic western film is referenced or parodied in some way.)
Brian: You ever get the feeling that you’re coming in at the end of something? Red Dead Redemption‘s greatest strength (in a game with a lot of strengths) is in its setting. This is the Wild West, not as America remembers it, but as American films do. A world of pastel oranges and glittering blues and turgid browns. A dangerous, unknowable world that stretches out over the horizon and disappears. A world that is dying.
Setting their game right at the absolute end of what anyone could reasonably consider the Wild West Era is such an interesting and powerful choice that it colors the rest of the game that springs from it. What Adam said above is true: this is Rockstar’s most mature game, in all the ways that matter. Sure, there’s plenty of tomfoolery to be had out in the wild, plenty of shenanigans to partake in, but that’s not the *point* this time.
Throwing out the fact that, mechanically, RDR is as good as anything Rockstar has yet done, this is a game that, on a strangely detached emotional level, hits like a truck. A really subtle truck. This is a game that truly, perhaps more than any I’ve ever played, understands the benefit and power of solitude. Of a vast, distinctly American emptiness opening up to swallow us all.
#1 BioShock. 2007, Irrational Games. 65 points, 18 votes.
Brian: Do I think BioShock is the best game of the last 15 years? Well, that’s a complex answer. To put it simply, no. It’s clunky, sort of ugly in the margins, doesn’t make sense to a point, and has an objectively bad final 90 minutes or so. It’s reliance on audio logs can be grating, and the level design is sometimes so confusing that the optional quest arrow is less hand-holding than it is necessity.
Do I understand why it got the #1 spot on this list? Absolutely.
Interestingly, BioShock received very few votes in the top 2 or 3. How it accumulated the points required for this victory is by appearing on nearly half of the ballots. So when I asked for people to think of games from 2000 and on that they thought were good, BioShock was often one that they thought of. It made an impression.
At this point, to talk about how well put-together this game is, how well-detailed and coherent it is, would be an exercise in futility. All these games are those things. What BioShock did was something few horror games have ever been able to do: it inspired wonder. With backgrounds that amount to little more than 2-D environments with a filmy “water” effect on them, BioShock’s exterior shots are equal parts terrifying and wonderful. Combined with the atmospheric and architectural design of the city of Rapture itself, it creates an effect of being deep underwater, isolated and crushed, that lasts the entire game. It’s amazing how this game manages to make such an impact and be so atmospheric when games with ten times the budget couldn’t hope to equal.
After one of the absolute great intro sequences in the history of gaming, BioShock starts off on the right foot and carries its momentum through a good 75% of its run time. The game itself is probably a better shooter than you remember, one that really shines on higher difficulties, where scavenging, trap usage and weapon customization are paramount. Each level until the absolute end of the game is visually, sonically and thematically unique, each one detailing the glorious rise and precipitous fall of Rapture.
Speaking of, I could write a paper (indeed I already have) on the way BioShock uses it’s chief antagonist, the industrialist Andrew Ryan, as a sort of center of the entire game. Where the setting is obviously based on Randian Objectivism, what gives it life beyond parody is how it’s based more on Ryan’s personality. Through amazingly well written and performed (by Armin Shimerman) dialogues, Ryan comes to life like few gaming characters before or since, snarling his contempt for the society he left, the society he created, and the men responsible for destroying it. Andrew Ryan is a man with a dream, and no matter how selfish and implausible and ridiculous that dream is, he still believes in it, to the very end. He’s a man who engages with the world on his own terms. He’s a despicable man, but there’s something noble about that, somehow.
All these things (and many more) sort of coalesce to make BioShock an almost immediately unforgettable game. I understand why BioShock landed here. Do I think it’s the best game of this new millenium? No. Do I think it’s the most important? Indisputably yes.