Part 3 of Brian’s countdown: From #25 to #2.
25) Dark Souls. From Software, 2011
If you were to say to me that this was the single-most important game of the decade, I would have a hard time disagreeing with you. What Half-Life did for the 90s (and Half-Life did again for the 2000s), the original Dark Souls did for this decade: completely reframing the way video game narratives are told. Think about how dominant the BioShock style of world-building was about ten years ago. Audio logs, ambient dialogue, radio conversations. Now think about how, outside of the Immersive Sim wheelhouse, you almost never see that kind of worldbuilding going on anymore. I don’t want to say it’s hackneyed, but it’s definitely not the way most games choose to impart their lore. Dark Souls proved that environmental design is more about what an environment infers than what some faceless crew member can say in a 45-second audio log.
Oh, and also this game completely reformed the concepts of what third-person action games are and spawned literally hundreds of imitators. It completely took over the industry. I’ve said before that I’m not really very good at this kind of game, but I certainly appreciate them. They just activate a very specific kind of anxiety that I don’t really feel comfortable with. But I had to put Dark Souls here, somewhere, among the true greats.
24) Wolfenstein: The New Order. Machine Games, 2014
On one hand, the new Wolfenstein games are extremely easy to talk about. They’re good, slick shooters with an aesthetically unique and interesting parallel future to explore and some funny, bizarre characterizations. On the other, they’re some of the most reflexively gross and disgusting FPS games ever made. Not that seeing literal Nazis completely disembowled and obliterated really upsets me all that much, but it still does something to your brain. These games are crass and crude and violent and in some ways truly anarchic (which is almost an impossible thing for a Triple A game to be anymore), and that’s by design. I think what makes them work is the true and beating heart of the series, BJ Blazkowicz, who is voiced and written and portrayed as a nuanced, intricate, real human person.
That humanism at the core of the new Wolfenstein games of course starts with The New Order, and its painstakingly detailed depiction of an alternate 1960s controlled (and overrun) by the Nazis. This is a game with almost an hour of re-recorded German parody versions of famous mid-century songs, from The Beatles (Die Käfer) to House of the Rising Sun. It’s great fun to listen to and experience, but also paints a chilling picture of just how effectively an oppressor can pacify and control people with pop culture. Also, this is a game where you go to the Moon and shoot laser guns as dog robots. So it’s got a little bit of everything, if you can stomach it.
23) Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. Arkane Studios, 2017
It’s a little difficult to talk about this game, the third (and final?) in the Dishonored series without talking about what makes the Dishonored series work so well, but I’ll try. Death of the Outsider is one of those games we don’t really see anymore. It’s not a full release, but it’s not quite DLC. Almost something of an expansion pack, it sees players in the shoes of recurring side character Billie Lurk (aka Meagan Foster), wrapping up all the dangling side plots from the second game and, you guessed it, trying to kill The Outsider (Robin Lord Taylor), the shadowy, extradimensional trickster who helped set the events of the series in motion and whose presence in the world of Dishonored is half-eldritch god, half-zany poltergeist.
It’s a great setup, and while in practice it reuses old maps perhaps one too many times for my liking, the challenge of the game around it manages to satisfy everything a longtime fan of the series could want. It’s almost like a hardcore mode just for diehards, easily the most brutally difficult game in the series (the last level in particular has some gruesomely tough enemies, which puts the focus on stealth even more than usual). This game also dispenses with the chaos system from the previous two games, no longer judging the player for how many interchangeable NPCs they kill (considering Billie’s backstory, this makes sense), which is a welcome change.
In the end, Outsider is probably only 60% of a full Dishonored game, but given its quick turnaround (released less than a year after the second game), patented art style and level design, and more razor-sharpened focus on plot, it holds up with the other two games and stands as probably the best piece of DLC or add-on content of the decade.
22) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. 2015
Boy, this is tough one to contextualize. I love Metal Gear, despite all its flaws. The third game is one of my favorites, ever. I even love Metal Gear Solid 2 and all its postmodern bullshit. If you judge these games just on the merits of their gameplay; the physics and the precision of the stealth, the sheer amount of options and strategies, it’s hard to really argue that The Phantom Pain isn’t the best one in the series. It might be the most mechanically complex and well-made stealth game ever made. Most of the fun comes from sneaking around the deserts of Afghanistan or the jungles of Zaire and just playing around with the mechanics, scouting military posts and scavenging supplies for Mother Base.
The problem here is that this is a Metal Gear game. The fun is supposed to be from the insane sociopolitics and metatextual nonsense. It’s supposed to be about cyborg ninjas and shadowy conspiracies and the complicity of fanboys in diminishing returns and the curse of sequel-itis. The Phantom Pain has some interesting ideas, but a bloated development and a lesser emphasis on Kojima’s storytelling make it sort of a muddled experience. There are some flashes, but it never really sticks with you in a way the other Metal Gear Solid games, even the lesser ones like IV or Peace Walker tend to.
So as a gaming experience, it’s great. One of my favorites of the decade. As the finale to the Metal Gear series, it’s just okay. Still probably good enough to get to this spot, but I’m not as enthusiastic about it as I was back in 2015.
21) Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar, 2013
Another similar situation here, with a huge, expansive big-budget sequel to a venerable series from the 90s, a game that checks all the boxes and is great to play that is ultimately let down a bit by shoddy writing. Still, I don’t want to get negative. GTA V is one of the most tremendously detailed and expansive game worlds ever created, and the mission design is second to none. Great soundtrack, great voice acting, some great modal gameplay, sharp writing; everything’s here. The problem is that the game wastes those performances on a cast of characters almost universally loathsome. The missions are great, but they focus almost entirely on linear sequences and do nothing with the open world. The writing is good but focuses way too much on the cheapest kind of parody, stuff that even earlier GTA games shied away from. Compared to the grand elegance and decay of IV, this game feels almost like South Park, which is exactly as much of an insult in 2019 as it was in 2013.
I don’t want to sound too harsh, here. There’s a lot about GTA V that works. The online in particular was something I played with friends for the better part of four years, doing elaborate heists and exciting missions but mostly just dressing up in stupid costumes and doing motorcycle stunts. It’s an incredibly well-polished, high-budget game. One of the biggest and most prominent releases of the decade. The character switching gimmick really shines in some of the bigger missions, too. It’s colorful, energetic, very fun and at times a little poignant (even with some truly horrid politics). It’s just a shame that so much is wasted in getting there.
20) The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt Red, 2015
Here’s a game that has no such writing flaws. I like The Witcher III as a fantasy hack-and-slash RPG. It’s got an interesting, low-fantasy Eurotrash world and some great monster design. The systems are good enough to make it work. What makes it great is the writing. Every character, from simple vendors to questgivers to barons and monarchs, is given actual, identifiable human wants and needs. Real motivations. That Geralt is such an immediately iconic and identifiable character from the go, even if you’ve never played a Witcher game before this one, certainly helps. There’s just a very specific mood and tone that this game is going for, and it’s hard to say it doesn’t nail it completely, which is rare, even among games of this caliber.
19) The Last Guardian. Team Ico, 2016
What an auteur Fumito Ueda is. I’m generally loath to use that term for game designers, given how much of a collaborative process game design is, but unlike Hideo Kojima or SWERY or pretty much every other revered eccentric Japanese developer, save one* (auteur theory hasn’t really caught on for games in the West, which is an entire other article idea), Ueda’s games aren’t just him throwing all the movies and shows he likes on the screen, then turning to camera and smirking. His games Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and 2016’s The Last Guardian have a very specific, minimalist design aesthetic that rings as both unique and utterly timeless. His games make deliberate artistic choices. They aren’t just a series of nods and references, they exist entirely as what Ueda wants them to be. He could do more, but he doesn’t. It’s the player’s responsibility to figure out why.
So why is such a true ARTIST’s latest and most complex game so relatively low given the flowery and pretentious stuff I just said about him? Something about this game, great as it is, feels a little less controlled than Ueda’s previous games. Lots of people take offense to how poorly and awkwardly the protagonists in Ico and Colossus control, and they did here as well. While I fully understand and appreciate why this is, what it means, I don’t know if it was as deliberate here as in those other games. I have to blame the extremely long development cycle for it. It’s obvious that Team Ico had no chance of fully realizing a character like Trico, a 40 foot tall bird/cat hybrid, on the PS3. But I’m not convinced they really did so on the PS4. There were times where the AI broke immersion for me, and seemed too much like a scripted response to a scripted action. This is true of almost every game with an AI controlled teammate, true, but none of those games came as close to successfully convincing me that I was interacting with a real flesh and blood creature as Guardian did, so on the not-so-rare occasions where it didn’t, it really stood out.
Again, not trying to be harsh here. Plotwise this is one of the very few games this decade or any other to successfully make me cry. It’s an interactive experience I think everyone should have before they die, I’m just not sure it’s a great gaming experience. I’m usually the last person to say stuff like this, I know. It happened just enough to be distracting, though, so I have no choice but to drop this wonderful miracle of a game a few spots because of that. At least it finally came out.
*We’ll get to him later. You can probably guess who it is.
18) Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Machine Games, 2017
You could just transplant everything I said about The New Order onto this one and have it work. Just make it bigger, badder, more schizophrenic and paradoxically, more intimate and heartfelt. Where New Order made BJ Blazkowicz into a real character, New Colossus makes all his friends into them. Everyone, from Anya to Sigrun to Grace to even old favorites like Bombate and the scientist Set Roth, feel more fleshed-out and understandable than before. It’s not even that the writing is all that good; sometimes it’s downright terrible, but this commitment to deep characterization is the lifeblood that runs through the new Wolfenstein games, which is an incredible thing to say about a series as infamous for dumb bullshit and mindless action as this one.