I played a lot of video games in the last decade, and I think it speaks to the quality of the medium that there’s still so many that I want to play. I kind of wish the whole industry would just stop making stuff for a year or two so I could catch up, so I could play all the God of Wars and the Undertales and the Subnauticas and all of the other incredible games which I simply missed along the way for no reason other than the number of hours in the day. I pine for the day scientists crack the code of sleep, giving me back seven hours a day where I can just play all of these games I missed and appreciate all of the hard work which goes into this medium year after year.
But, alas, I am but a mortal who still needs to hit the hay (not for lack of trying), and this industry will keep marching forward, producing masterpiece after masterpiece. But, despite this, I can still appreciate that which I did play. And that’s really all this is: me, spending a moment to acknowledge the games that really moved me, the games that latched themselves in my brain and never let go, that influence my own design and my own tastes and just who I am as a person.
So, here they are, my personal top ten games from the last decade, the games which moved me, which changed what sort of things I wanted to make.
Yeah, this game came out like two months ago, and I’m not even done with it. Guess what, it’s on my list. My list, my rules, if you don’t like it, write your own list.
The team behind Death Stranding have done what I’ve wanted a AAA game developer to do for years now: they’ve rejected the traditional ideas of what make a video game “fun”. So many, too many games of this size now fall back on the same rote ideas of killing stuff, completing checkboxes on a map, going really fast, big setpieces, all of this stuff which is certainly fine, but when every game does it, I’m left feeling like video games as a medium are a bit stale right now. It’s a very similar feeling to how I feel about big-budget American movies right now: one paradigm rules the roost, and anything that isn’t that paradigm just isn’t profitable enough (at least in the eyes of people with the purse-strings) to make.
Then Death Stranding charges in and dares to imagine an absolutely ludicrous kind of game, a game where a major console manufacturer can throw millions of dollars into a game, stuffed to the brim with cutting edge graphics and celebrity cameos and a 60+ hour runtime, about lugging a bunch of heavy shit from point A to B. Death Stranding has some traditional combat mechanics (which are the worst part of the gameplay, IMO), but most of the mechanics revolve around making you increasingly skilled at carrying increasingly ludicrous amounts of crap across a desolate, empty world.
Yeah, whole thing’s not perfect. While the story and themes are interesting, the writing is garbage, and I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of if Hideo Kojima has ever actually met a woman, let alone is capable of writing one. The combat, like I said, is a little interesting but far too trivial to really matter. But, god dammit, the rest of this game is so interesting. The way it rewards learning the terrain of the world, the way it makes you feel a sense of community despite being completely isolated, the music, this game is truly something absolutely special.
When Nintendo unceremoniously announced a sequel to Deadly Premonition during one of their Directs this year, I screamed. I rewatched the trailer at least 30 times, texted everyone I knew, posted to every social media account I have. This is my Shenmue 3, my The Last Guardian, my Final Fantasy 7 remake. My beautiful, terrible dream that I assumed would never in a million years come true.
In many ways, Deadly Premonition is deeply unfun to play. The car you spend comically too much of the game driving is both too heavy and too light, bafflingly. The wayfinding in the game is awful, it does an awful job of signalling where side quests are available (or even that side quests are available) and, of course, the combat is atrocious, multiplied by the fact that for a majority of the game there is one enemy type, which delightfully repeats the same, let’s be generous and say six, barks (“I don’t want to diiiiiiiiiiie”)
So I want you to read all of that, and go to my Near Misses list and look at all of the amazing games that I very much did not give this spot on the list to, and think about how much I must absolutely adore the parts of this game that do work. The characters in this game are instant classics, each delightfully quirky and idiosyncratic in a way perfectly evoking David Lynch, the game’s obvious thematic inspiration. There are so many amazing moments in this game, either in their genuine emotional strikingness or due to the wave of confusion they elicit. This is a game which is so quirky and charming and fun that even in its greatest slogs, I just always wanted to see what crazy thing was behind the next corner.
If there’s one thing that Deadly Premonition absolutely oozes, in every aspect of its being, it’s earnestness. The team behind this game clearly loved it, despite its flaws and their own limitations in budget, and god dammit it shows. There’s something, I dunno, deeply charming about this game through and through, as though realistic graphics and big budgets and advanced combat systems are just layers of fog concealing the true, beating heart of a game, one which beats brightly in Deadly Premonition. I think everyone involved in Deadly Premonition had fun making it, and I’ll be damned if that feeling doesn’t pass on to me as I play it.
Fallout: New Vegas
I don’t talk about Fallout: New Vegas as much as I want to on this blog. Depending on my mood, it’s my favorite game ever made. It’s the reason I have the Brotherhood of Steel emblem tattooed on my arm. I’ve played it a dozen times, and I’ll play it a dozen times more. Many a game has attempted to capture what makes this game great, both from franchise heads Bethesda Softworks, and New Vegas‘s own developers, but none have matched it.
Obligatory “but it isn’t perfect”s out of the way, this game is brown as hell, the combat is kinda bad, and Bethesda’s engine can’t handle large crowds of people to save its life and it shows in this game’s lackluster final battle. Besides all of that, Fallout: New Vegas is perfect to me. New Vegas is an infinitely interesting place to me, one that’s been cleverly set up to exist in a sort of deadlock at the game’s outset. Every faction in New Vegas is at a stalemate, and it’s the anarchic presence of the player that knocks down the dominoes necessary to set this world into motion. Watching your decisions ripple out and change this world is one of the great many satisfactions I get from New Vegas.
This feeling of player decisions leading to reward also exists in microcosm in the individual quests. A great many quests in this game allow for what feels in the moment to be an infinite amount of possibilities, as random relationships, perks, companions, skills, items, or whatever the player can muster can be slapped together to solve the problems of the Mojave, with the game seemingly being ready to handle any of them.
While the primary gameplay triumvirate of shoot-sneak-chat wasn’t revolutionary at New Vegas‘s launch and is even less so now, the reason this game shines is how it uses it to let you tell a version of the game’s story that feels genuinely unique. Whether you’re the brainless bruiser for Caesar’s Legion, or the nerdy coward fighting for the NCR, talking about how you played New Vegas never boils down to “I did the good path” or “I did the bad path”, it feels like a story that is genuinely yours.
Prey claims a spot that I knew from the second I started this list would have to go to one of Arkane’s great immersive sims of the last decade. The fact that Prey has beaten out Dishonored, a game I love so much that I have the Mark of the Outsider tattooed on my arm, stands as testament to how much I love this game.
Simply put, other than some pacing issues (there’s a definite difficulty spike in the middle of the game, and an absolute difficulty crevasse at the end), there isn’t much Prey does that doesn’t blow me away. The first hour of Prey is maybe the best opening of any video game ever made, period. The retro-futurist aesthetic of the game is phenomenal. Talos-I is an infinitely interesting place to explore, cleverly designed to give up a few more secrets every time you pass through an area, filled with smart touches that make this space feel so much more real, most notably the fact that the whole station’s crew has been named, given a role, and a fate somewhere in the physical game space, a feature that draws a surprising kinship between this and Return of the Obra Dinn.
It’s really the immersive sim DNA running through this game, though, that gives it the beating, Typhon-corrupted heart that drives it all forward. An emphasis on the interactions between mechanics means that your whole time with Prey will be spent experimenting, coming up with new, clever ways to open doors, dispatch enemies, and get to places that you feel like you just maybe weren’t supposed to get to yet, giving you a real satisfaction for understanding the way the game ticks.
And none of this even touches on Mooncrash, Prey‘s phenomenal DLC which turns the game into a unique twist on a roguelike, in which you use the game’s systemic design to try and optimize runs through a moon base, in which you must try and get five characters to five distinct victory conditions, all sharing the same world, and the same limited resources. Mooncrash unto itself is inspired, and the fact that it’s just another piece of this fantastic game makes Prey all the stronger.
There are three first-person shooters of various flavors on this list, but Titanfall 2 is the one which has the best moment to moment gameplay, the best control of emotion and energy on the microcosmic level that leaves your brain running a million miles an hour while you play. This game has a billion good ideas, all executed at a masterful level, all of which serve to hammer home the same beautiful, perfect thought: Go. Fast.
A pilot in Titanfall 2 is a projectile unto themselves. Running and bouncing off of walls, grappling around surfaces like a gun-toting Spiderman, sliding through doorways and beneath weapons fire, pilots are an incredible joy to move around as, and increasing in skill just results in you being able to move with greater ease, resulting in high-skill gameplay feeling a bit like you’re flying. Combine this with the extremely brilliant decision to fill the large battlefields with constant NPC warfare, which the players can swoop into like a hawk to sow chaos, and Titanfall makes good on its promise to make players feel like veritable superheroes of the battlefield.
As if this wasn’t enough unto itself, then the actual eponymous Titans get dropped into the battlefield, and the whole dynamic changes. Much like Battlefield‘s vehicles, the Titans add an additional dimension of combat to the map, but the much tighter spaces in Titanfall end up giving Titans a sense of claustrophobia in exchange for their power. Sure, you can literally crush a pilot under your heel, but there are so many little corners and angles for a pilot to come, will you even notice them when they do? Titan against Titan combat is a cacophony of ultra-powerful weaponry which will turn a passing pilot into mist, yet the agility and combat tricks of an unmounted pilot still makes them a deadly threat. Titan gameplay is interwoven deeply with on-foot gameplay in a way that just makes every fight even more interesting.
Also, for what it’s worth, the campaign is fantastic. Genuinely good characters, some fantastic gameplay gimmicks that last just long enough to make an impression without wearing out their welcome, and curated setpiece moments designed to make the most of the game’s best mechanics make the whole experience a slam dunk on top of the excellent multiplayer.
LISA: The Painful
The funny thing is, if you search this blog for LISA: The Painful, you’ll find my review of it, one of the first things I posted here, which is actually a bit lukewarm. However, as the years go on and “quirky JRPG-inspired surrealist indie game” becomes a genre unto itself with classics like Undertale, Anodyne, and Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, I constantly think about how good the good parts of LISA are.
A game that could be hastily described as “what if Earthbound, but the plot of Children of Men“, LISA: The Painful puts you in the shoes of Brad, a drug-addled martial arts master who is self-appointed caretaker of Buddy, the last woman alive in a post-apocalyptic surrealist wasteland. In this hunt, Brad ends up joining up with a veritable carnival of weirdos, psychopaths, and at least one fishman who end up constituting your JRPG party. Each of these party members has unique mechanics, from Brad’s fighting-game-adjacent combo system to a drunk whose abilities require him to maintain a constant buzz through the fight, all of which help spice up a Barkley-esqe active combat system.
On top of its unique combat systems, a wonderfully weird aesthetic, and a fantastic soundtrack, the thing that makes LISA truly amazing is how, even now years later, LISA is simultaneous one of the most genuinely depressing and genuinely hilarious games I’ve ever played. This game is an absolute masterpiece of writing and design, with a fantastic control of tone that uses an interactive medium to inspire genuine dread (the choices brought upon by running-antagonist Chris Columbo are mortifying), and tear-inducing laughter (the ladder and the bulldozer, for people in the know). So often writing in games genuinely fails to evoke anything, and for LISA to be able to ping pong between two vastly different tones and to nail both of them is a monolithic achievement.
Left 4 Dead 2
Left 4 Dead 2 is my favorite co-op game of all time, period. There are so many good ideas packed into the Left 4 Dead franchise that its kind of amazing to me that it’s only recently that other games have started to take its best ideas, with homage games like Vermintide finally coming to their own. This listing is also slightly cheating, as Left 4 Dead 2 contains all of the original Left 4 Dead inside of it (and was also reskinned to make that baffling Japan-only arcade game, which I’ve also played), but that just hammers home even more how great Left 4 Dead 2 really is.
At first blush, there’s not a ton of content in Left 4 Dead 2, with the base game only including 5 campaigns of 5ish levels each, but the beauty of Left 4 Dead 2 is in its infinite replayability, both due to how much of the gameplay complexity reveals itself over multiple playthroughs, and the AI Director which mixes up the gameplay elements and constantly tweaks the difficulty of every run. As you play better and better, learning to recognize the audio cues for each Special Infected and pull off advanced tactics like crowning Witches, the game responds in kind and gets harder, meaning that the game remains a challenge at all times.
There are few co-op video game experiences I’ve enjoyed more than getting a group of my friends together and running a campaign or two of Left 4 Dead 2. The game’s use of Crescendo moments creates a delightful rhythm of panic and calm that few other co-op experiences can match, all the more fun when you toss in a few mods to, say, replace the Tank with Shrek.
There’s a certain, I dunno, purity to Left 4 Dead 2 that I also enjoy. There’s no XP or gear to get, no meters to fill. Just the same set of challenges to hurl yourself into, constantly getting harder as you get better and better. In a lot of ways, my feelings of Left 4 Dead remind me a lot of how other people talk about Spelunky: the feeling of tackling this monolithic, hostile thing, and slowly learning how it ticks.
Kabukicho is one of my favorite places on Earth. A seedier nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, Kabukicho is lit up like the sun all through the night, with literally hundreds of bars to choose from in a few blocks. Some are tourist traps, with bright smiles and friendly faces trying to wave in an unsuspecting Westerner to get fleeced. Some are friendly neighborhood bars beating to their own drum, calmly relaxing to jazz or blaring death metal ambivalent to the crowd outside. Some of them don’t even have signs. It’s a neighborhood I’ve been to many times, one where I’ve met a wide variety of wonderful people, had some near-misses with some bad times, and ultimately a place I’ve had numerous unforgettable adventures, and Yakuza 0 is a perfect encapsulation of that.
Yakuza 0 is a sprawling story driven by its varied cast of excellent characters. From its dual protagonists, the moral paragon to-a-fault Kazuma Kiryu and the down-on-his-luck Goro Majima, to the colorful array of passionate villains, to the myriad of total weirdos you’ll meet through the game (shoutouts to Mr. Libido, the Pants Thief, and the Bad Dominatrix), this is a game where, in both the melodramatic, sweeping crime epic of a main quest or the silly, ridiculous side stories, you’ll be driven forward by meeting a stranger and suddenly being swept into the night on an adventure that will probably end well, just like my nights in Kabukicho.
All of this is built on a mechanical framework that’s designed to just feel lightheared, silly, and just dang fun. The combat system deemphasizes execution in favor of situational awareness, rewarding perceptive players who pay attention to the environment with ridiculous, bombastic Heat Moves to bash through enemies. The legendary array of side content here is a treat, from bowling and batting cages to an underground fighting arena and an entire subplot of model car racing. It really does feel like a night out drinking: you have a plan and a goal, then suddenly someone says “LOOK, A KARAOKE BAR” and the whole thing just goes to hell.
The entire Yakuza series is a delight, and I can’t wait to delve into the later entries as the full remaster collection continues to drop. Of all of the games promising grand adventure and unforgettable moments, only Yakuza offers the kinds of grand adventure that I genuinely love in real life, the kind where you let yourself be consumed by a bustling, living city, and go wherever the flow may take you.
This one’s another partial cheat: much like Left 4 Dead 2, the entire predecessor of 2018’s Hitman 2 has been forward-ported, essentially doubling the content of the game. However, even if Hitman 2 stood alone, it would be one of the most infinitely fun and interesting games I’ve ever played, and the fact that it contains its entire, similarly wonderful predecessor ascends it to this list.
Hitman 2 is an incredible game for people who are interested in systems-driven game design. The core of this game is a logical engine, a series of rules by which these clockwork worlds abide. The first time you wander into Miami’s F1 racetrack or the busy streets of Mumbai, you’ll be bumbling around. Your kills will be messy, perhaps an axe to the face in front of a crowd of dozens. But as you play these levels, again and again, you’ll see the rules of the world laid bare. You’ll understand how they tick, and more importantly, how they respond to you.
True Hitman play begins when you enter these levels as a master, the strings which move the puppets of these sandboxes firmly in your hands. Then, you go from a bumbling, axe-wielding lunatic to the director of an elaborate play, making sure everyone is in their places for the elaborate show you have planned to go on. In some ways, Hitman 2 is, at its apex, kind of an art form? There’s something deeply satisfying about envisioning an elaborate kill and pulling it off, swiftly, with no mistakes, no matter how complex, like putting on a grand show.
On top of all of this, Hitman 2 is just genuinely hilarious. There’s something pure and beautiful about a deadpan assassin hurling a can of spaghetti sauce at an unsuspecting guard, or busting out an entire elaborate drum solo at the drop of a hat, or just wearing a big stupid toucan costume. It’s great, and just adds to the feeling of conducting a show, as you’re suddenly offered a new dimension of play, to create the stupidest deaths imaginable. Hitman 2 is just a pure delight through and through.
I’m a huge sucker for Supergiant Games, and of their games, Pyre stands tall as my favorite. The pitch for this game is a bit intangible at first glance. It’s hard to hear “Character-driven Purgatorial Basketball Tournament” and really have any idea what you’re getting into, but what you are getting into as a fantastic story, paired excellently with some extremely interesting gameplay systems.
Pyre takes place in a purgatorial realm called the Downside, one where criminals and convicts from a great fantasy kingdom above are literally thrown down to a world beneath for their crimes. You, the Reader, rapidly assemble a rag-tag group of criminals to participate in a thing called The Rites which… well, which essentially are a sports tournament for your freedom. The game takes place over multiple cycles of this tournament, the winning team of which gets to select a player to ascend back to the world above, their sentence ended.
This tournament structure is the crux of Pyre‘s genius. Early on, you rapidly realize the world above is maybe not governed by the most benevolent of rulers, and you and yours hatch a plan: by bringing the right people back up topside, you can attempt to stage a coup and overthrow the corrupt system which threw you down here. You can tactically choose who you want to bring up to further this goal. Or…
You see, Pyre has no failure state. You can lose any given tournament. Actually, there’s a moment that happened to me where I realized not only could I lose it, I had the ability to influence who ended up in the finals (by targeting and knocking out contenders earlier in the qualifiers), then throw the final match to allow characters not in my party to ascend. And you want to do this, too: the whole cast of Pyre is so well-written, crafted with such empathy and so interesting, that you might be willing to hedge your bets to save a character who you really think deserves it. It’s up to you, if you think your revolution will succeed with one less person, you can maybe throw a tournament in favor of rescuing, say, the kind old man who’s ostensibly your opponent but has always treated you with equanimity, or a vengeful veteran of the Rites who was once given the chance to ascend but had it ruined by the actions of another.
The cast of Pyre is so powerful, and the constant choices of who to raise topside and who to leave beneath, that I was enraptured by this game from start to finish. On top of that, I enjoy the gameplay quite a bit, the artstyle is simply sublime, and the soundtrack and sound design, as is so usual with Supergiant, is one of the best in video games. Truly, a phenomenal experience.