The 75 Best Games of the 2010s, Part 1

62) The Wolf Among Us. Telltale Games, 2013-14

As the first follow up to their genre-defining smash hit The Walking Dead, Telltale pulled a move that any self-respecting hipster band would be proud of: they went to some shit none of us had ever heard of, and they killed that too. I kid, because I know two or three people who read Bill Willingham’s Fables series, but it certainly was a downgrade in the whole “cultural cache” department after something as momentous as TWD. That played to the game’s favor as far as I’m concerned, as it shifted focus less towards questions like “I wonder how good of an adaptation this is” and more towards things like “I wonder what will happen next in this narrative.”

Their Batman series had the former problem a little too much for my liking, and in this one, the focus is generally where it should be: on the writing, the performances, the narrative, and that slick-ass intro sequence. What I’m saddest about with Telltale’s demise is that we’ll never get the Season 2 we deserved.

61) Halo: Reach. Bungie, 2010

Reach is a fascinating game. The last Halo game made by series creators Bungie, it functions better as a farewell to Halo by the developers than it does an actual game. Most of the scenarios are a mismash of ones from previous games, mixed together like a greatest hits album, divorced of the context that made them stand out in the first place.

What makes this all work is the tone — an almost reverential, elegiac take on the brightly colored sci-fi war tropes the previous games took to their respective logical extremes. The characters in Reach all seem to understand, just as well as the player does, that this is a prequel, and they’re all going to die. And die, they do. While this odd approach takes away from any real sense of tension, it does function exceptionally well as a tribute, not just to the characters themselves, but to the games as a whole. It’s almost as if Bungie knew how bad this whole Destiny thing was going to go from the start, and wanted to say goodbye to when they made good video games. There’s an argument to be made that Bungie were the signature game developers of the 2000s, and then, just one year into the 2010s, they were essentially done. The company as it exists now, post-Activision, is completely unrecognizable, and that’s a shame to me.

60) LIMBO. Playdead, 2010

A lot of the indie games that made this list owe their livelihoods, at least in some small part, to LIMBO. I said before that it’s impossible to really know the big name developers anymore. The monoculture is real, and they have all been swallowed up by it. If nothing else, the 2010s in gaming will forever be defined by the indie scene becoming something of a secondary industry underneath the big AAA studios. Developers like Jonathan Blow, Lucas Pope and Notch Persson have become gaming celebrities in their own right (not entirely for the best reasons for a couple of those gentlemen) and companies like Fullbright and Campo Santo leveraged their distinct styles and high profile creative talent from other companies into their own class of indie game, more financially stable than one-man shows like 3909 LLC but less constrained by corporate oversight and marketing deadlines than the bigger studios.

Anyway, the reason this all pertains to LIMBO is that it helped start that momentum by becoming a bonafide hit in the summer of 2010 on the Xbox 360, launching a new wave of indie platformers that carries on to this day. It’s hard to imagine a world that didn’t have LIMBO in it also having 2018’s excellent Celeste (which would be on this list if I was good enough to finish it). I’ll talk more about Playdead when I get to their other big game, but even if this was their only game of the decade, its cultural impact was about as big as I can imagine. 

59) The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Nintendo, 2011

Boy, this is a tough one. There’s a lot that I love about Skyward Sword, despite general reaction to it being poor enough that Nintendo completely blew up the franchise and reset it in 2017 (more on that later). I love the painterly, delicate art style. I generally like the motion controls, even if they trivialize combat a lot of the time. There’s a couple dungeons (Sandship and Ancient Cistern) that stand with the best of any previous 3D Zelda games. The plot is generally good, if a little recursive, and fits in nicely as the locus point for the entire timeline. The music is tremendous.

But man, the bad here is just miserable. The overworlds are dull and uninspiring the first time through, let alone the 5th or 6th. The flying is fun for about 10 minutes. Some of the other dungeons are just insultingly easy, as are some of the bosses (though others fare better). The generally engaging plot devolves into a Proper Noun festival near the end, and some of the combat is finicky to the extent of seeming like a joke. It’s an intensely schizophrenic game, and if nothing else, jettisoning the Ocarina-style game design helped this franchise find focus and a new direction. It still leaves me basically unsure of what to think about Skyward. Is a bad Zelda game still good?

58) Dragon Age: Inquisition. BioWare, 2014

Speaking of games I will never replay, here’s BioWare’s last good game. Whoever decided to turn BioWare, a studio known the world over for sharp writing, tight theming and believably crafted worlds into just another bland open world RPG developer should be arrested. There’s still a lot to like about Inquisition, but it’s hard to tell when you spend 80% of your playthrough searching for random crafting materials on the side of a mountain. This company was never actually good at making combat systems, so they decided to make their proper sequel to Dragon Age: Origins a big combat sim? It’s a bad look, and it made even finishing this game in the first place a real slog. Still, it’s better than Dragon Age II, so I guess it’s got that going for it.

57) Diablo III. Blizzard Entertainment, 2012

Hey, do you remember Diablo II? I sure do. Do you know who doesn’t really remember Diablo II all that well? Blizzard. Or at least, going by 2012’s long-awaited sequel, they don’t. Blizzard North (fka Condor) was the studio responsible for that second, nearly perfect game, and because of that, I’ve always felt like Blizzard proper didn’t really know what to do with it. Sure, D3 has all the surface trappings of its predecessor, and it’s a fine game on its own merits, but standing next to the second game it really feels like somebody tried to describe Diablo to someone else over the phone, and that second person was also bad at developing games. I don’t know, ignore me. I just wish we could get another D2, but Blizzard’s so far past making that kind of game that I guess I’m really just asking for a miracle at this point.

56) God of War. SIE Santa Monica, 2018.

Listen, I’ve had my problems with God of 4 before. I don’t think the combat meshes well with the camera system, I don’t like how anti-systemic it can be (by that I mean how it refuses to allow its different gameplay elements to interact with one another, i.e. no fighting and climbing at the same time, like Uncharted). I’m not even that crazy about the writing, which has to pull some pretty wild u-turns to make Atreus’s character work. Is the story even all that good, or are we just comparing it to the shlock that we’re used to from this series?

I think about all these things when people call this “one of the greatest games of all time.” What I also think about is the extremely satisfying crunch of Kratos’ axe slamming into the face of some frostbitten giant. I think about those few missing frames of animation that make Kratos’ swings feel faster and more brutal than the human eye is used to. I think about the truly great boss fights and some terrifically-paced levels. I think about how intuitive the side controls for Atreus’s bow are, and how the combo system invites experimentation with them. And yes, I think about Kratos’s stern admonishings and the slow, steady bond he creates with his wayward son, all the way through the emotionally fulfilling ending. I think setpiece action games are oftentimes lazy, and this is no exception, but at least it’s the right kind of lazy. The kind that is fun.

55) Stellaris. Paradox Interactive, 2016

So I’ve been writing this piecemeal over the course of Summer 2019, sort of putting it together and moving things around slowly before I realized I was going to have to choose between this and Civilization VI. Now I love the Civ games, or at least the three I’ve played, and Civ 6 is more than worthy of an inclusion on this list, but there’s honestly not much I can say about it that I could not also say about its sci-fi counterpart, Stellaris.  It’s the same kind of sim, with pops and civics and tech and slightly-too-obtuse warfare.

What makes Stellaris stand out is its modularity and customization. The early stages of any good civ game are marked by exploration and discovery, and where Civ 6 can get a little boring, Stellaris is constantly finding new, emergent ways to surprise you. Being able to completely customize your species feels deeper to me, even if I miss the bespoke, fun personalities of the Civ games. Perhaps more important, the endgame crises of Stellaris feel much more emergent and interesting than the final stages of an average Civ 6 game, which usually is just the declining action of a conflict that has long since been decided. So for these reasons and many more (mainly all based around visual designs), I put Stellaris here and Civilization VI not. I love both games, though.

54) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Starbreeze Studios, 2013

It’s a little difficult to explain what makes Brothers such a good and unique game. The art style is part of it, and the hook of being a single player co-op game is another (you control both of the titular two sons with a different analog stick). But really what shines through here is the storytelling. Not necessarily the plot events as they would be listed out on a Wikipedia page, but the way the story is told: no dialogue, very few cutscenes, almost no load times. It’s a holistic, almost pure experience where you control two dorky brothers on a quest to find a way to help cure their father, and all the weird misadventures they experience doing so. It’s not really a difficult game, nor is it a long one, but it’s extremely memorable and unlike anything else that has ever (or will ever) existed.

53) Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Naughty Dog, 2011

Uncharted III is in a tough spot. Following up on the runaway smash success of Uncharted II, it had to be bigger, more ridiculous and ultimately better to stand out. While it definitely succeeded at those first two, the third proved to be one treasure even Nathan Drake couldn’t find (sorry, sorry, I’m trying to delete it).

Anyway, Deception is as self-assured and polished as a big budget sequel should be, but finds itself stuck between the wondrous spectacle of Among Thieves and the more solid storytelling of A Thief’s End. So it ends up not really being as memorable. There’s the yacht sequence, and the plane sequence, and then everything else just kind of blends together. It’s by no means bad, perhaps even great, but when looking at it next to its direct contemporaries, everything just kind of sinks through your fingers like sand.

52) L.A. Noire. Team Bondi, 2011

I think at this point the best way to talk about L.A. Noire is as a noble failure. Touted as an evolutionary step forward in facial capture technology and video game acting, Noire ended up falling a little flat as a realistic sandbox game, a witty detective game and as a dazzling period piece noir (though the effort that went into recreating late 40s Los Angeles remains one of the most impressive feats in recent game design history). So why is it on this list? Because despite all those hiccups, it’s still not quite like anything else I’ve ever played. A weird pastiche of Grand Theft AutoAce Attorney and every 90s adventure game ever made, Noire manages to carve out a fresh and unique identity in a sea of GTA clones.

Its performances vary from cartoonish to wooden, the facial capture technology flies all the way into the center of the uncanny valley, the shooting and driving is generally unfun — but the mood, the mise-en-scène of it all is downright intoxicating. Everything feels like it has weight, and texture, and meaning, even when it doesn’t. The plotline is almost schizophrenic at times, but the highs (notably the Homicide section) feel like the greatest David Fincher movie never made, while the lows (Vice, probably) still do an admirable job of illuminating the realities of corruption and decay in post war LA. In the end, that’s the best way to describe L.A. Noire: admirable. The real tragedy, then, is how the titanic costs this game incurred ultimately sank developer Team Bondi before they could get another shot and really polish this formula into something truly great.

51) Papers, Please. 3909 LLC, 2015

It’s hard for me to think of a game more difficult to describe than Papers, Please. It’s…a game about immigration and bureaucracy, made by one weird guy, and the entire thing takes place in one solitary checkpoint, where all you do is check forms and press stamps. And yet, it’s ultimately intoxicating in a way very few games ever have been. I beat it in two short sittings, and felt like I could’ve gone for another 50 hours with it. Where it shines is in the precise, authored experience of it.

Set in the fictional Eastern Bloc country of Arstotzka, Papers sets you in the shoes of a humble customs officer, trying to balance the needs of his family (food, heat, rent) with the moral obligations of a bunch of starving, desperate refugees trying to find a new home in his country. Every time you fudge a form or ignore a lie, you’re not just hurting some imaginary quota, you’re taking food out of your unseen son’s very mouth (the game knows when you ignore falsified forms and fines you for it). Couple this with an ever-broadening and restrictive set of immigration policies designed to bottleneck things more and more, and the game becomes as stressful as a thousand space fights.

How much of your humanity are you willing to curb in order to keep the lights on? How willing are you to memorize another fresh page of obscure regulations in order to do your job better? How well did you memorize which parts of Kolechia have an airport and which parts don’t? It’s questions like this which transcend the bounds of conventional video game morality and track much closer to the sort of things you might see in an ethics class, or if you’re particularly unlucky, the real world. Unfortunately it also makes this game one that is sometimes very icky and disconcerting to play, and while I don’t think that affects its quality, it does make me feel like moving it out of the realm of the truly great and into this one.

Continue to Part 2.

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