38) The Banner Saga. Stoic, 2014-2018
If nothing else, The Banner Saga is the ultimate and final argument in favor of hand-drawn animation over anything else. Developed by a cast of former BioWare hands, Banner Saga feels like a dark reflection of their older games, more Baldur’s Gate than Mass Effect. Set in a world heavily informed by Norse mythology, Banner is the story of several disparate groups of Humans and Giant-like Varl as they stage a desperate trek to escape an implacable force of stone giants called the Dredge during an eternal, everlasting daytime. The gameplay is split between almost Oregon Trail-like journey segments, complete with DnD–style random text-based encounters, and brutal, stylish turn-based combat, all hand-animated and gorgeous.
What makes Banner‘s gameplay stand out from all the XCOM-clones of the mid 2010s is the trade-offs inherent in the premise. Winning combat encounters gives the player experience points called “Renown,” which can be spread among the various party characters to level them up and purchase upgrades. Unfortunately, Renown is also the currency which buys food for the caravan, meaning that the more you spend on levels, the faster your civilians will die (losing them all ends the game). But the more supplies you buy, the weaker your hero units will be. The game is founded on maintaining this balance for as long as possible; controversially, hit points and strength are also the same attribute, making it harder for you to simply eat damage with your tanks less they become useless in combat. Of course, this applies to enemy units as well, which means that some fights are better fought leaving as many low HP enemies as possible on the field, to soak up turns and keep the stronger foes from being able to act as often.
All in all, The Banner Saga, as a complete work (Parts 2 and 3 came out in 2016 and 2018, and are essentially the same game), is one of the more stylistically unique and interesting turn based games of the decade. Well-written characters and story beats, great art design, a unique combat experience and a truly disconcerting and fascinating setting make it well worth the 25 or so hours it takes to finish, despite a mildly anti-climactic finale.
37) Alan Wake. Remedy Entertainment, 2010
You know, there’s a small part of me that wants to rank Alan Wake in my top 15, despite that I know all the problems it has. It’s just so different from anything else, even in Remedy’s repertoire, that it’s hard to really forget about. Alan Wake the character is a shitty hack writer, but Alan Wake the game is one of the truly great postmodern video games of the 21st century. If you haven’t played it, I won’t spoil anything for you, but the way this game transitions from Stephen King knockoff to Lynchian psychodrama is so wondrous and confusing and video-gamey that I think everyone should experience it at least once. The TV-style episodic setup is so brazen and strange that it needs to be seen to understood.
Alan Wake is a very particular kind of horror game. There are jump scares, but they’re not really frightening. There’s shooting and action, but not really much blood or gore. It accomplishes more with a creepy atmosphere and the suggestion of horrid violence than it does with actual violence. It doesn’t scare the player as much as it causes dread and anxiety. Alan Wake himself is an atypical action game star. He’s a generally decent guy, but can be a dickhead at times as well. He’s not really portrayed all that sympathetically. Part of this is because he’s a relatively normal man going through an extremely traumatic and terrifying series of events, and he’s dealing with it in some pretty unhealthy ways. Part of it might just be because he’s a dick. In combat, he moves with a clunkiness and slowness that, after remembering Max Payne‘s gameplay, has to be deliberate. He’s just an average man. He can’t run very far without getting winded. He fumbles with his guns in fear. He can’t flip a tank. He can’t dual wield two guns and mow through an army of Nazis. He’s just some guy, and that illusion of scrappiness and inadequacy stays pretty consistent throughout the entire game.
Wake is, generally speaking, a metaphorical game, which I get makes it hard to really sell without sounding tacky, but Remedy’s best skill is combining B-movie archetypes in ways that come across as more meaningful and dare I say artistic. It’s a game that seems to have been destined to become a cult hit. It takes several playthroughs to really comprehend in any meaningful way, and its nakedly sequel-baity ending seems destined to never be resolved. At least Remedy finally secured the publishing rights earlier this year.
36) Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian Entertainment, 2010
There’s one great big joke at the center of Obsidian’s cruelly overlooked dark gem (and the only Fallout game to make this list). Having been to Las Vegas several times, I can tell you fairly confidently that I get the joke. Above everything else that makes this game great, the writing, the incremental technical improvements over Fallout 3, the wondrously anarchic energy of the main plot, that joke is always what I think about, and it is thus: if you were to pick one place in the entire American continent that probably wouldn’t look any different than it already does after a nuclear holocaust, it would be the blighted hellscape that is Las Vegas.
Anyway, this is the best Fallout game of the decade. The only one that understands what people liked about the originals. The only one to actually improve on the formula. It’s a shame Bethesda basically blackballed it from existence out of jealousy.
35) BioShock 2. 2k Marin, 2010
What is it that we expect from sequels in games? Do we want them to simply iterate upon the original? Do we want them to be inventive and surprising? If so why are they sequels? Why not something new?
I ask all these extremely dumb rhetorical questions to transition to a more interesting one: why is BioShock 2, despite being I think an objectively better game than its predecessor, both as a shooter and as an environmentally interesting Immersive Sim, regarded so poorly?
I’ve been thinking about this off and on for nearly a decade now, and I think the reason is fairly obvious: nobody was surprised by BioShock 2. There was no way it could live up to the initial shock and awe of players’ first trip through Rapture. So it only had the meat of its gameplay and level design to fall back on. The plot is…fine, like these games’ usually are (although I’d say Sofia Lamb outright does not work as a foil for Andrew Ryan), but the level design is a high-water mark in the genre, to me. So what we ended up with was a game that lived and died in the shadow of its more famous sibling, and despite the great worldbuilding, level design and overall tone it established (and one of the truly great DLCs of all time in Minerva’s Den), it never managed to escape.
34) Inside. Playdead, 2016
An extremely and viscerally upsetting game by almost any measure, Inside to me is at the cutting edge of games being considered “art.” At times it came as almost too pretentious to believe, at other times it was so incredibly affecting that it was almost overwhelming. It’s a similar kind of game to LIMBO in that it’s less about intensely intricate platforming than it is about establishing a very particular mood, but my goodness is that mood well-established.
The plot and lore go to some fairly interesting places, for what they are, and the ending is one of the few gaming endings to engender some true literary interpretation, as far as I can remember. It’s not a game for everyone, and it knows that, which is admirable in a way to me.
33) Super Smash Bros: Ultimate. Nintendo, 2018
I hate to sound like a broken record (note: I don’t!), but it’s Smash. You know what this is by now. Or you don’t, and it holds no interest for you. What I will say is that not since Melee has one of these balanced this well the nostaglic, self-congratulatory nature of a game like this with actually compelling fighting. It’s frankly amazing how generally distinct and well-balanced the characters are in this game, considering there’s roughly 700,000 of them.
32) Batman: Arkham City. Rocksteady, 2011
I imagine some people might be upset with Arkham City being ranked this low, and I understand why. If this list were based solely upon the impact each game had upon industry trends as a whole, I’d have it in the Top 10. The Arkham series completely changed the way Triple A games approached open world combat and world design. The titular City is smaller than your average enormous open world game, but it’s as densely packed and detailed as games coming out now. My problem with this game (and it’s a minor nitpick considering I still think it’s one of the great games of the decade), is that the story is absolute nonsense.
I love the Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill Bat-verse as much as anyone else alive, but the amount of insane bullshit that happens in this game, in the course of one night, is just too much. It gives Arkham City a weird sort of pacing, that after the initial rush of adrenaline this game’s climax brings, that nothing outside the opening and closing 10 minutes makes any sense. Also, if I’m nitpicking, the amount of sidequests to do here is probably about 25% too many. Still, this is a great game, arguably still the best superhero game ever made, and set a precedent for sheer worldbuilding and open-world design that came to define the standard for this decade.
31) Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Eidos Montreal, 2016
Like a lot of Immersive Sims, time has been kind to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. After the initial botched launch and extremely awkward and tone deaf marketing campaign, which tried to paint this game’s plot as some grand David Cage-esque statement on how sometimes robots can be people, too, the game has settled into being what it always was supposed to be: a small scale blast of pure Deus Ex goodness. Set mostly in future Prague, Mankind Divided has maybe the most intoxicatingly interesting architectural designs in any game that isn’t Dishonored this entire decade.
The city is just incredibly interesting to walk around in and get to know, which helps given how much the side quests focus on knowing the city, its back alleys and dead ends. And what great sidequests they are. The ever-stalwart Mark Brown talked about this a bit in a video just after it came out, but a lot like Arkham City, this is a game that knows the value of densely packed urban environments and the amount of mischief one dedicated writing staff can get into in one. Plus, the janky civil rights analogy the game was marketed upon works a lot better in the game proper, where it can be slowly fleshed out over multi-stage, multi-hour sidequests — the film noir murder mystery being a particular highlight. Plus, it’s just a great example of Immersive Sim design, begging to be looked at, studied and of course properly looted.
30) Dragon Ball FighterZ. Arc System Works, 2018
I wrote about FighterZ a bit in my games of 2018 piece, so instead of repeating myself, I’ll just say that it’s still the best-looking fighting game ever made, and while you don’t have to be a Dragon Ball nerd to enjoy it, it certainly helps, and I certainly am. Also, the DLC is good.
29) Mass Effect 3. BioWare, 2012
If I had to pinpoint one exact reason why Mass Effect 3 fell where the first two games soared, it would be simple. It wouldn’t be the ending, as bad as it is. It would be something much more concerning for the future of BioWare: a harsher and stricter focus on gunplay over conversations. For most of the previous two decades, BioWare games were known for their writing. From individual character writing to large-scale social commentary, BioWare always knew how to paint a distinct flavor and tone into their games. You always felt like you understood where the individual characters stood, and each distinct area felt like its own place, with its own social strata and histories.
In ME3, there’s less of that focus than there is on just shooting things. As advantageous as that was for the shockingly great multiplayer, it really hurt the flow of gameplay. It felt more segmented and disconnected. Part of this is the decision to have most planets in the game host to a scant one or two missions. Obviously, this was done to spread the game’s scope to be as wide as a galactic war should be, but it’s notable how the game’s two strongest sections, Tuchanka and Rannoch, are multi-stage missions all taking place on one derelict planet, a lot like how the original game only had its two big hub worlds. It gives you, the player, time to get to know each of these places, to live there for a bit. After all, that’s what you’re supposed to be fighting for.
That being said, I still like this game a lot. It plays great, and I think the loss of a lot of role-playing elements wasn’t a bad idea in and of itself. It’s nice to have Shepard be a more direct, self-contained character, making her own decisions independent of the player. The Citadel DLC was also a wonderful capstone on the whole Mass Effect experience, even if the game as a whole failed to live up to the expectations of its progenitors.
28) Control. Remedy Entertainment, 2019
At first glance, this is essentially the same game as Quantum Break. It’s got the same rough engine, the same mix of third-person shooting, platforming and mind powers. The same austere, blue/gray color palette. Even a similarly monolithic company standing as the last bastion between the Earth and primal, multiversal forces beyond its control. What makes Control better is in the little things. The way concrete and rebar and glass groan and twist and shatter under the power of telekinesis. The way the aftermath of every big fight sort of looks like the end of the lobby shootout in The Matrix, all powdered concrete and destroyed columns. The way liv- action FMW bits are scattered throughout, featuring all the game’s models playing all the same characters, just existing in this virtual world like it’s a normal thing to see. It’s much less like the conventional, kind of dull TV episodes of Break and much more similar to something like Address Unknown, the hilariously Lynchian miniseries that plays in the background of Max Payne 2.
This game is a mood piece, is what I’m getting at. The plot is interesting enough, and the combat is finely tuned, but it’s the miscellanea around this stuff that really pops. I enjoy how much the game’s Federal Bureau of Control so effortlessly channels the weird paranormal banality of TXF, Fringe, The Dharma Initiative from LOST, Twin Peaks (specifically Fire Walk With Me) and everything those shows inspired. Beautiful people in fine, nonspecific clothes walking briskly around marble floored office buildings while holding big manilla folders with sensitive information about The Artifact inside. Unexplained shifts in genre and tone that leave you more confused than scared, operating on a level beyond mere horror and more into…maybe not dread, but some kind of anxiety.
The game’s setting, The Oldest House, recalls more esoteric location references like The Black Mesa Research Facility, Aperture Science, The Overlook Hotel and The Black Lodge — all impossibly large, labyrinthine places that seem to transcend dimensions and exist everyone all at once while also being recognizable enough to be easily beheld in the mind and divided into specific sections.
There’s also plenty of that signature Remedy weirdness, what with both James McCaffrey and Matthew Porretta, the voices of Max Payne and Alan Wake, playing the two central lore characters; a Finnish janitor who can appear anywhere and almost never ending references to “Night Springs,” the in-universe Twilight Zone expy. I think what defines this excellent game most for me is how it almost feels like it was what Remedy has been building to all along. Like it was fated. Wake and Break are both games I have a lot of affection and respect for, but neither one exactly set the industry on fire. Maybe if they had, this game wouldn’t be here. But it is, and everyone else just has to accept that the best game of 2019 very well might have come from a bunch of Finnish weirdos.
27) BioShock Infinite. Irrational Games, 2013
I already know I’m gonna get some backlash with this one, but I think even ignoring the kind of game Infinite is (and I think it’s a very good one), it deserves to be here for what it’s done for the idea of gaming criticism as a whole. A lot of people really liked this game, and perhaps just as many disliked it, and for whatever reason (perhaps the relative down period between generations), people were able to talk about how and why they felt the ways they did about this game in much clearer and more precise terms than they did before. Sure, there was a lot of hyperbole, but there always is with games like this. When I played it the first time, I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever played. The last time I played it, I thought it was kind of mediocre. It was a game of the moment, to be sure. I can’t tell you exactly what that makes it today, but I think it’s still worth playing and talking about. BioShock Infinite might not amount to much more than a hall of mirrors, but the mirrors are very pretty to look at.
26) MARVEL’s Spider-Man. Insomniac Games, 2018
The last few years have been pretty incredible for the Webslinger. After getting the best live-action version of the character in 2016’s Civil War, 2017’s Homecoming and the two Avengers movies, we got the best Spider-Man movie period with last year’s Into the Spider-Verse. This brilliant game from Insomniac almost feels like it slipped through the cracks. While I’ve said before that it eschews a little too close to the Arkham formula, the fact of the matter is that Spidey is a much better fit for that formula than Batman ever was. Just as many gadgets, just as much freedom of movement, but with the added benefit of actually having superpowers, so shrugging off 20 bullet holes to get right back to pummeling villains is much more believable.
And what villains they are. Encompassing The Sinister Six, Norman Osborne, Doc Ock and the Kingpin, it’s almost more a celebration of Spidey’s legendary rogues gallery than it is a game, and yet, the writing and plotting remain mostly tight and intriguing throughout (there are some noticeable attempts to pad, mainly with Mary Jane’s weird stealth bits). In the end, this game sits as a pinnacle of Spider-Man media, and if, like any rational teenager or irrational adult, you’ve been a fan of the character like I have for most of your life, it’s pretty close to an essential experience.