A decade of video gaming has come and gone. Ten whole years. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around. At the start of the decade I was still a bratty teenager who thought himself bigger than he was. Now, I’m a depressed late-twenty something who needs pills to feel anything. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years do to me!
But it would be remiss of me not to look back on these ten years and not pay my dues to the games that shaped me. So in the spirit of the season (and every other journalistic outlet in existence), here are a list of ten games: not the ten best games of the decade, there are more qualified people to write that list, but the ten games that meant the most to me personally.
So. Let’s get this train wreck started.
2010: Red Steel 2
Red Steel 2 was the last time I can remember having pure, stupid fun with a game.
That’s sad, but it’s true. When I played Red Steel 2, the story of a cowboy samurai who swings and shoots his way through the west, it was stupid, brainless, and completely and totally engaging. The Wii had a lot of games that didn’t get the credit they deserved, and as sheer popcorn fodder, Red Steel 2 is definitely on that list. The ability to freely switch between stabbing and shooting, intense one-on-one duels, and a complete departure from the boring and bland first game in the series made Red Steel 2 a genuine gem – and one you can still enjoy at least a little, if you find the OST online.
No other game made me feel the kind of goofy joy that Red Steel 2 made me feel. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again.
2011: Dark Souls
While the rest of the gaming world waited for Skyrim, a few, like myself, waited for Dark Souls.
It’s thrilling to look back and realize I was the vanguard of a new wave of game design that would sweep the world following the sleeper success of Dark Souls. While Skyrim blew up and fizzled out, Dark Souls was a slow burn that turned into an inferno that consumed everything that followed it. There is not a single aspect of game design not somehow touched by Dark Souls. It was a revolution, and I was there, fighting undead in unsettling new lands with the rest of the Demon’s Souls faithful.
From stunning uses of visual storytelling to a firm but fair approach to level design, Dark Souls is a master class in the value of games as an artistic medium. There have been countless Souls-likes sense, but none yet have dethroned the OG.
2012: Orcs Must Die 2
2012 was a brilliant year in video games, looking at the list.
But Orcs Must Die 2 is here because of what it means for me. In 2012 I was 20 years old. My brother had gone off to university, my sister was living in Japan, which only left me at home, struggling at a dead-end for-profit university with a nonexistent social life and barley any prospects beyond the vague hope of being published one day.
My only social contact was my brother, and by god, did we play Orcs Must Die 2. We played the hell out of it. The combination of third-person action game and cooperative tower defense meant it scratched both our inches, and we spent long hours working together to perfect our strategies and our scores. And modding the hell out of the thing.
Maybe not my favorite memories of gaming with family… but it’s definitely got a special place in my heart.
2013: Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite had such an impact on me it’s hard to know where it starts.
It was the first game I seriously played as a reviewer, and I even bought an extra PS4 controller when I realized I forgot mine at school when I went home to play it over the weekend. It was the first game I seriously dissected as a narrative and a piece of interactive fiction that used the mechanics of game design to explore a subject (yes, even before Dark Souls). And it was the first game to touch me – not just in an emotionally way, but an intellectually way. My heart ached for Booker and Elizabeth, and my mind raced at the exhilaration of realizing what the coin-flip scene signified.
Bioshock Infinite will always be special to me, even as people dissect it and forget it in favor of other father-daughter narratives, like The Last of Us. But ask which pair I prefer, and I’ll just show you this:
2014: Dragon Age Inquisition
Dragon Age: Inquistion was the last game I wrote fanfiction about.
I used to write a lot of fanfiction for a lot of stuff – from Pokémon to Professor Layton. By the time Dragon Age Inquisition had come out, I had given up on that practice long ago. But there was something about this one particular moment – a completely organic moment where I misunderstood a quest trying to romance Cassandra and I spent hours looking for a book of poetry in the wrong city – where I was just… inspired by the absurdity of it. I wrote it, a crappy little four page story that nobody read, and I continued playing.
It’s a weird little aside, but it’s telling of the kind of game Dragon Age Inquisition was: filled with characters you loved, waiting to ambush you with unexpected stories.
And you wonder why people are so excited for a new game.
What else could it be for 2015?
Okay, sure, The Witcher 3. And you could argue quite fairly that The Witcher 3 had a bigger impact on the world of video games, and in the world of mass media, and even world culture. It, without a doubt, deserved the award for Best Game of 2015.
But anyone whose played Undertale will tell you that it, almost certainly, had a bigger impact on them personally. Undertale might have a structured narrative that can only really go one of three ways, but if you go into it blind, it is your story. It is a story filled with laughter, with tears, with painful self-reflection, and the booming thesis that the world is full of goodness and you being there is one of the reasons that’s true.
Undertale didn’t make me a better person. It living in my memory means it is making me a better person. Every single day.
2016: XCOM 2
2016 was not a good year. The world had been falling apart for many years before 2016, but 2016 was the year when it really crystalized that. It’s the year, you could roughly say, my years and years of optimism fell way for a tired cynicism that haunts me to this day.
To that end: the appeal of a game where the world is falling apart, but the dedication and expertise of a small team of hard-working manage to both stave off and prevent catastrophe despite the many failings of a cowardly world government should be fairly obvious. I fell pretty hard into XCOM 2, modding it (mostly so I could deck my soldiers out in cooler gear) and replaying it (and usually losing) so I could live that fantasy over and over.
Unhealthy coping mechanism? Probably. Should I have been throwing myself into actually trying to fix the world? Definitely.
Yet here we are.
2017: Nier Automata
The only reason Nier Automata is on this list is because of the E Ending.
And if you’ve played the game, or you’ve seen me rant about it endlessly, you know why.
Nier Automata is not a game you play if you want to feel inspired or hopeful 99% of the time. It is a dreary, depressed, hopeless game where all your efforts are undermined, futile, or bring about disaster to everyone unfortunate to be caught in your unassuming wake. It’s a game that doesn’t shy away from the heartbreak pacifism and optimism invite into your heart. It’s a game that slams regret and loss into your face, over and over, until it’s imprinted into your brain.
But that final moment in the E ending? One moment, one scene… it manages to break through the shell it surrounds itself with and deliver something indescribable. A plea that despite everything the game itself has been telling you, you cannot give up: either on yourself, or on others.
I still haven’t forgotten you, Sarah.
2018: Divinity: Original Sin 2
When my brother and I were wee boys, we would play a lot of video games, but never silently. We always crafted stories, role-playing aggressively and assertively even in games where it didn’t make sense. We even had an ongoing narrative in Super Smash Brothers we would default to, voicing our characters and goofing off for hours at a time.
As we aged, we stopped doing that, obviously. It was childish and silly and we were playing more games where the narrative was baked into the plot. There was no need to have races in Super Smash Brothers or dance-offs in Soul Caliber, because we could just silently enjoy games like Tales of Symphonia or brainlessly blast enemies in Army of Two.
But for a moment, when we were both in our late twenties and we should have known better, Divinity: Original Sin 2 brought back that old childhood magic. What more could you want in a role-playing game?
2019: Pokemon Sword and Shield
There were better games to come out in 2019, but Pokémon Sun and Moon proved to me two things: you can never go back, but you don’t always have to.
I’m not the only person who has a lot of nostalgia tied to the Pokémon franchise, and I’m not the only one on a never-ending quest to recapture the innocence and the purity that the Pokémon series somehow so perfectly encapsulates despite their messed-up setting. In a tough year, seeing the world get worse and worse, I was looking forward to falling back into that innocent world again.
It didn’t quite materialize. But despite all the ways Sword and Shield profoundly disappointed me, it satisfied me in the way I needed most: giving me a team of digital monsters who, for as long as I’m playing, somehow feel like they’re my friends. There’s nothing else you really need from Pokémon.
2020 is a few days away. I am not looking forward to it. On top of becoming an old man myself, it promises to be a year full of strife, obstacles, problems, and frustration. I cannot honestly say I am looking forward to the future with starts in my eyes. Things look bleak. Even a little hopeless.
But if nothing else, looking back at the old me, playing Red Steel 2, he would have been surprised at where I wound up. So I have to leave myself open to the idea that, come 2029, I could be surprised then, too.
I really hope so.