9) DOOM. id Software, 2016
Go ahead and consider this a placeholder for DOOM: Eternal also. My review has more to say about the content of this game, but I just want to reiterate how insane it is that somebody managed to make a DOOM game that I liked even half as much as the originals. I probably would have guessed that was impossible before this meaty, visceral panic attack of a game roared into my room and beat the shit out of me. But it’s not just a violent power fantasy. There’s a dance at the heart of its supercharged combat, a pattern of movement that makes every other FPS game feel like it’s stuck in mud while DOOM is hurtling into the center of the galaxy at lightspeed. And at the center of the galaxy is a big motherfucker with a chainsaw. And you get to kill him.
8) The Last of Us. Naughty Dog, 2013
I struggled with this one. As a narrative-based interactive experience, I think The Last of Us is as important a game as Tetris was for handhelds or Super Mario Bros was for platforming. It didn’t really innovate its style of storytelling, but it perfected it, blending its story bits and gameplay bits to astoundingly great effect. I’ve said before that Half-Life 2 is the most well-paced game of all time, and I still believe that, but if I had to pick a #2, it would be TLoU. Joel and Ellie’s yearlong trek across the continental United States is broken up into almost perfectly digestable 45 minute chunks. The cast of characters are written to be exactly what the story needs to be. The performances are about as good as I think this medium is capable of. The ending is…well, I think potentially the only one in the history of video games to make me gasp in shock.
So why isn’t this wonderful game #1? Simple. It’s not…fun to play. It can be harrowing and exhilarating and tense, but rarely truly fun. Uncharted has this problem on occasion too, but that’s more because some of the shooting galleries are poorly designed linear slogs. The Last of Us is one of the few games that is actually hard to push through just from a kinaesthetic standpoint. Which is very much the point. If a game about the kind of things this game is about were a quick twitch DOOM clone that made the hair on your arms stand up with excitement, the ludonarrative dissonance would be off the charts. It’s supposed to be a brutal experience. I understand and applaud that, even if I don’t exactly enjoy it.
7) Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo, 2017
Another game I reviewed; the thing that still stands out most to me about Odyssey two years on is that damn dinosaur. Not so much the actual content of what you do with it, but how, after it being the huge reveal at the end of the e3 2017 trailer, the game just throws it at you 15 minutes in and then moves on. There’s so much creative energy in this game that almost every single creature or NPC you can possess with Mario’s hat feels like it could have been the core of a short indie platformer. Even just the “possessing things with Mario’s hat” bit feels like the jumping-off point for an entirely new kind of Nintendo game.
But it’s not a new game. It’s all Mario. Somehow, it all fits together and feels right. Somehow, Nintendo took their oldest and most traditional game series and turned it into an arthouse design spectacular. Sure, the levels aren’t actually that big when you get a handle on them. Sure, the base game is fairly easy. Sure, it’s probably not quite as deliriously insane as Galaxy, but not since Mario 64 have I immediately attached myself to a Mario game like this. It made me feel like an eight year old again, before I really knew how games were made and what to look out for. When I could just run around some strange castle and amaze all my friends when I showed them that there’s a Yoshi on the top.
6) Dishonored 2. Arkane Studios, 2016
Another game I had a review for at release, and my initial thoughts haven’t changed very much since. The level design on display here is so far beyond anything else any company has done that it almost feels unfair to make the comparison. I’ve never seen a game level as intricately and meticulously put together as the Clockwork Mansion.
In a way, the Dishonored games are almost as interesting as architectural studies as they are brutal stealth games. The verticality and expansiveness of every level set in Karnaca’s streets is astounding. Games teach you that you generally can’t just go into random side buildings and that most doors won’t actually open, but the sprawling apartment complexes of Dishonored 2 seem to go on forever at times, expanding into entire other sections of city that you can go into and explore.
I’ve played through it three times, and in every other level I seem to find some new area I hadn’t seen yet. Lots of open world games are designed like this, of course, but the magic of Dishonored 2 is that it’s not an open world game. It’s much more authored than that. Every space feels deliberately placed, like it’s there for a reason. Like someone lives or works there. That the game manages to do this while still being a supremely functional stealth action playground is truly masterful stuff. A superlative game. 2016 might have been the best year of the decade for games, and this one was quite easily my favorite.
5) Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar, 2010
Well, here it is. I imagine some people might not like that I put this game above its sequel, but having played through it again last year before the release of RDR2, I felt as though it was somehow even better than I remembered. Something about the primacy and urgency of John Marston’s quest played straight through, without wasting time on side activities, made it feel much more viscerally emotional to me.
I was going to say earlier that one thing that really helps narrative games like this and The Last of Us is that the interactive nature of games makes even decently-pulled-off tragedies and twists feel much more impactful. Even a game like GTA IV can feel as inevitable and forlorn as Shakespeare in the right mindset. I’ve also said before that truly great endings in games are extremely rare. Oftentimes, they’re very satisfying. Take the original Halo for example. One of my favorite games. The ending is terrific fun. It gives you exactly the feeling you want to have for this kind of experience. But it’s not exactly interesting. It doesn’t challenge or confuse you. It ends, and you feel good, but it doesn’t stick with you. I think generally it’s very difficult to make up a satisfactory ending to a 15+ hour experience.
How do you encapsulate everything a game, even one as narratively driven as RDR, in maybe 45 minutes of gameplay? Well, this game does it. On the off chance you haven’t beaten it, I won’t spoil, but if you have, you know what I mean. The story of John Marston, perhaps the most convincingly written and portrayed character in the history of this medium, is perfect. It could not and should not have been anything else. If for no other reason than that, Rockstar’s true western epic will stay with me, probably forever.
4) Portal 2. Valve, 2011
I’m making a note here: huge success.
It’s Portal 2. You know what this is. Don’t overthink this. It’s perhaps the only actually funny comedy game ever made, and the puzzles are still great. Even if it weren’t a great, great game, I’d still have it here as it’s the last single-player game Valve has made, perhaps ever. Shed a tear, friends.
3) Mass Effect 2. BioWare, 2010
How did Mass Effect ever work? Was it just the state of things in the late 2000s? Great narratives in games were still so new. BioWare were still good. It’s not like there’s anything “new” about it. It’s a deliberate pastiche of pretty much every major western sci-fi property. To put it another way, these are Sci-fi junk food games. They’re not really poignant or emotionally resonant on their own, but they become so through the act of becoming familiar with the characters and the world. Gaming is a medium notorious for relying on cliche and stereotype, but rarely has any game series packed so much into one package and made it work as powerfully.
I’m rambling a bit here. Mass Effect 2 is the best one because it leans the hardest into the worldbuilding of its universe. It’s less concerned with the Reapers and the fate of the universe and all the other Proper Nouns that go with serious stories and just lets you hang out with the characters and find out more about them. It’s a character game, structured like a season of your favorite television show, with peaks and valleys and mini arcs, character-centric episodes, midseason cliffhangers and a mildly disappointing ending that promises more fun next season.
It’s the last truly great BioWare game that still embraces modular design based on the unique social dynamics of half a dozen worlds that you get to explore in-depth. Before this, they never quite had the tech or the budget to fully realize their vision. After this, they strayed too far into trends and focused more on merely average open-world nonsense. This is BioWare at the absolute height of their power. Cherish it. Relish it. It’s never happening again.
2) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo, 2017
The last game on this list that I reviewed is also I think objectively the best and most impressive entry of the decade. So why isn’t it number 1? Well, that’s tough. When I started writing this, I just assumed I’d have Breath, my favorite game since I was a child, in the top spot. The game I think about the most, the game I ran back through my head when I was at work or in the shower or driving. The systemic Zelda game. What the fuck. They really made one.
I’m not going to sit here and earnestly criticize this game for its flaws, which do exist, because those aren’t the reason it didn’t end up at #1. The game that beat out Breath gave me such a visceral, resonant emotional experience that I simply had to move it up. That doesn’t take away from the majesty of this game. It’s been two and a half years since release and there are still places on the map I’ve never been to, even after 150 hours. There’s still sidequests I can do, still more challenges to finish. I haven’t even completed the Master Sword Trials yet. I beat this game in less than three weeks because, hilariously, I wanted to finish up before Mass Effect: Andromeda came out. I played Andromeda for maybe 10 days before selling it off and just jumping right back into Zelda. It’s the version of this series that I always wanted, a modern retelling of the original game, the creation myth of video games reborn and restyled. In a way, the flaws and creases in this game don’t even matter. It’s too important.
Within a month of release, it was being called the next GTA, in that everyone who makes a game in this genre will be using it as a template. Like GTA, no one has come even close to replicating it. It’s a special, special experience that makes every other open-world game feel simple and puerile in comparison. It’s the best Zelda. Think about how crazy that is. But it’s true. It’s come the closest to realizing Shigeru Miyamoto’s original vision for the series, while somehow completely modernizing it. Somehow both the ultimate retro game and a far-flung vision of the future. Most of all, it’s a goddamned adventure.
Before we finish up, I want to shoutout a few games that I either haven’t played or haven’t played enough yet, as well as some honorable mentions. Perhaps if I was writing this in 2025 they’d be on here, but part of why I started this was to illustrate how I feel about this decade of games RIGHT NOW. Some of these games I’ve mentioned in passing here, some of them I may never get to play. Just some more stuff to recommend to anyone.
Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare, 2011
Sleeping Dogs. United Front Games, 2012
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Platinum Games, 2013
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. Access Games, 2014
The Beginner’s Guide. Davey Wreden, 2015
Rocket League. Psyonix, 2015
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. Firaxis Games, 2016
Batman: A Telltale Series. Telltale Games, 2016-2018
Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Deck Nine, 2017
>OBSERVER. Bloober Team, 2017
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. PUBG Corp, 2017
VAMPYR. Dontnod, 2018
Dead Cells. Motion Twin, 2018
Games I Haven’t Played That I Think Belong Here
Return of the Obra Dinn
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Untitled Goose Game