17) Life is Strange. DONTNOD, 2015
This is a very tough game to contextualize. I imagine at least one person reading this thinks it’s truly terrible and shouldn’t be anywhere near even the #75 spot on this list. That’s fair, I suppose, but there’s something at the heart of Life is Strange that feels truly unique, some spark of creativity that makes it more than sum of its parts. Some might credit this to the abrupt, insane tonal shift that happens about halfway through, and that’s certainly part of it, but I think it’s the simple moments that allow you to just…sit and soak in the atmosphere that makes this game work. Set in the permanently orange-hued Northwest fishing town of Arcadia Bay, players control Max Caulfield, a dorky, lonely photography major returning to her hometown and attending the nearby Blackwell Academy.
It’s a pretty simple indie game setup, complicated slightly by an actually novel time travel mechanic. Early on, Max discovers she has the power to rewind time. What makes this unique in games, ever a breeding ground for cliched time travel mechanics, is how it’s applied. You can only rewind time while in a specific area, doing a specific thing. Mostly, it’s used for individual conversations, which makes it an incredibly useful skill for an awkward teenager to have –being able to undo something awkward you said, knowing ahead of time all the answers in class, knowing what to say to the bullies so they leave you alone. The other bit that makes it feel fresh is that the decisions you end up making are final, and you don’t really know ahead of time how they’ll turn out. Oftentimes, there are no “good” choices, both outcomes doing something to offend or harm someone with Max often struggling to keep up.
Which brings me to the most divisive aspect of LiS: the writing. It’s earnest and heartfelt while also being sometimes painfully awkward and very obviously written by a bunch of middle-aged men. Somehow, that actually makes me like it more. It makes it feel more like the indie games of the past used to: haphazard and sort of patched together last minute. A passion project, almost. It helps that I’m very much used to cringey dialogue given how much I love Metal Gear, but I think if you can get over that aspect, there’s a lot to love and appreciate about this weird game. It captures a very specific suburban sort of mood, when you’re just old enough to start deciding who you are but still young enough to just sit around all day and hang out in your friend’s room and get high and listen to music, with the sun dappling through a half-closed window and leaves whirling around the yard. It’s a game about those last few days before high school starts up again and you know this might be the last time you ever get to feel like a child. It’s magical in a way I don’t think any other game, save maybe Night in the Woods, ever really gets close to. If you can stomach all the other stuff, it really could capture your heart.
16) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Naughty Dog, 2016
In writing these, I often feel as though I have to explain the game and its premise a bit before getting into what I liked and loved about it. I don’t really have to here. It’s Uncharted. You know what it is. You know why it’s good. This one is the best one because it’s the most thoughtfully written, well paced and interesting one of the bunch. Among Thieves is probably still the most enjoyable, but A Thief’s End feels like it has something to say, about Nathan Drake in particular and relationships in general. It’s the only game in the series that isn’t as apologetic about its frankly psychopathic protagonist and understands that he only ever got into this line of work because he never really grew up. And then he does grow up, and then he’s gone. He doesn’t need to star in a series of games about hunting for treasure anymore. It’s a much more emotionally honest and mature portrayal of one of gaming’s most iconic scoundrels, and feels like it really ends on the highest possible note. Just a terrific story and a terrific game.
15) Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Eidos Montreal, 2011
I freely admit that there’s a lot about 2011’s Deus Ex reboot that doesn’t quite work. The gameplay goes for a sort of hybrid between the original’s open-ended puzzle solving and more traditional first-person action, and it never quite reaches a happy medium. Solutions are too obvious, too telegraphed to ever feel organic and exciting in the way the original game was. Lofty ideas like transhumanist ethics, surveillance states and corporate overreach are thrown around, but never really satisfactorily explored outside of some random civilians mentioning that they exist. The characters are well-designed and can be very interesting, but outside three or four, all still feel like archetypes, Megan Reed in particular. It plays a little janky now, and the overall graphical quality wasn’t all that good in 2011, let alone in 2019.
I don’t really care about any of this. DXHR is a game of such clear design and aesthetic intent that all of that is wiped away. Just the act of being in this game, walking around in Detroit or Hengsha and looking at all the very plausible late 2020’s advertisements and storefronts, seeing the destitution and desperation of the poor huddled masses waiting for their next Neuropozyne shipment, does so much more for the worldbuilding of this game than mountains of flavor text ever could. It’s so rare for a big-budget game in the 2010s to feel like such a coherent and concise statement of authorship. I was very unsurprised to learn that the core development staff were all placed on the same pop culture regimen during early stages. They all watched the same movies, read the same books and listened to the same songs. Not since the original DOOM can I think of such a coordinated development effort. It paid off in ways the sequel never could have, and in ways modern games just don’t do anymore.
Human Revolution is a game of its time, for sure. We’re already halfway to the game’s imagined 2027, and there aren’t any mind control chips being sold to the public. There is no Picus News, no Tai Yong Medical. And yet, it feels like there could be. That’s why DXHR is here, and why it will continue to live in the back of my subconscious for a long, long time.
14) Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar, 2018
Here’s a hot take: Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most disappointing “good” game of the decade. It’s not Destiny or Anthem or Mass Effect: Andromeda; it’s good, but it wasn’t what it could have been. I wrote about this a bit in my Games of 2018 piece, but some combination of the background of this game’s development, the tediousness of its mechanics and the predictability of its story makes it feel like less than it is. That being said, some of my personal favorite performances in any video game are in RDR2, the story is gripping for most of its run time, and it’s a pretty incredible achievement from a technovisual standpoint. It’s just not “The Greatest Game Ever Made,” so it’s at least a little disappointing.
13) Prey. Arkane Studios, 2017
My review here. I don’t really need to expand that much on Prey from there, except to say that what looked like the full return of the Immersive Sim seems to have been the end, instead. Prey did not sell particularly well, despite being a tremendous experience once patched and fixed up in late 2017. There’s even a piece of DLC that expands on the concept, 2018’s Mooncrash, which recontextualized the traditional Immersive Sim level design inside the bones of something rogue-like. It’s a little bit too random for me to play for too long without getting upset, but it changes the basic concept enough to really be interesting going forward. I’m looking forward to how Arkane uses this design for whatever their next game is. If it’s as well-designed, expansive, aesthetically interesting and deep as this one, I’ll probably love it, too.
12) The Walking Dead. Telltale Games, 2012
It takes a lot to transcend the traditional zombie trope. For my money, only two games this decade really did it. You can probably guess the other one, but I want to take a second to shout out just how magical Telltale’s masterpiece really is. The Lee/Clementine relationship just works, and if you want an example of what this game would have looked like without that relationship at its core, just look at all this game’s sequels. They aren’t bad games, but without Lee and Clemetine to anchor the player (and without most of the lead writing staff, who abandoned the Telltale firestorm as soon as they were able), it just feels like another zombie tale. Few games, if any, have been as influential to their genre as The Walking Dead, and it’s not hard to understand why.
11) Dishonored. Arkane Studios, 2012
There’s a cliche you started to see after the release of Dishonored: that it’s an oil painting. At the risk of sounding like IGN, it’s really true. It’s the best metaphor I can think of for how rich and bespoke this game is. It’s a gourmet of a game, extravagant and excessive and feeling like it was made just for you. It was marketed as a kind of BioShock ripoff, and while it has similar bloodlines in the Immersive Sim genre, I think it’s a much better distillation of that genre.
These games love to allow for all kinds of player expression, and while Dishonored certainly doesn’t have a problem with blood and violence (which can be quite artful in the right hands), I think the game works best as a slow paced, Thief-style stealth game, with intermittent explosions of violence when necessary. Scrabbling over cobblestones, eavesdropping on important conversations, using your eldritch powers to zip around unseen between shadows before perfectly executing your target. It’s an intoxicating power fantasy, which perfectly tiptoes the line between challenge and carnage.
Honestly, I find this game’s allure harder to describe than basically anything else on this list, but it’s just good. I don’t know how else to say it. The intricate levels, hyper-oppressive steampunk art design and gloomy, downtrodden atmosphere make it feel truly dangerous. Every level has something unique about it that sticks with you. The nooks and crannies of the Distillery District, the opulence of the Golden Cat, the perilous heights of Kaldwin’s Bridge, the urban decay of the Flooded District, and so on. But none of them quite fit the gleeful trickster energy at the heart of this game more than Lady Boyle’s Last Party.
Set roughly halfway through, it’s the only mission in the game where Corvo can simply walk around in the open in view of guards because as he’s attending a swanky costume party, everyone thinks he’s a random noble with a gruesome costume instead of the actual Masked Felon terrorizing the gentry of Dunwall. So it becomes a social stealth level, organized around finding clues and sniffing out which of the three Ladies Boyle is your true target before striking. It’s also a wonderful playground to test out game mechanics, given it’s an enclosed space full to the brim with NPCs and guards to toy with. Everything that’s great about Dishonored is here, but somehow the game continues on and finds new ways to surprise you. It’s a tremendous game. If I had made this list in 2015, I’m fairly certain it would have gotten my top spot, but age hasn’t been as kind to it as other games in this tier. Thankfully, a better version was on the horizon.
10) HITMAN/HITMAN 2. IO Interactive, 2016/2018
In that games of 2018 piece, I put a lot into why I thought HITMAN 2 was the runaway game of that year, so in the interest of brevity I won’t add too much more — only to say that I still don’t think this wonderful reboot (I’m counting the 2016 entry as the first half of this experience) is getting the recognition it deserves. Most of the dozen or so good gaming YouTubers have done videos on it, but I think Super Bunnyhop did it best (and most vigorously effusive).
The final (?) DLC level for this came out in late September, so if you haven’t gotten on board the HITMAN train and feel like you might want to, now’s as good a time as any.