This is a list of my personal favourite games of the decade—not the “most influential” or “most innovative.” As such, a few of my picks are sequels that refined a formula after the previous title had done the hard yards of evolving the genre. Iteration! My picks also reflect the fact that I became a parent this decade, turning me into a big baby gamer. I stopped playing shooters and mastery-focused games like the Souls-bornes, and I let go of my hangups about dropping down to easy mode.
5. Skyrim (2011)
The decade started strong; Skyrim marks a pinnacle of the PS3/Xbox generation. It is one of the few games where I don’t mind not having a strong sense of what to do next. The world is simply one of my favourite places to be: walk around, explore a cave, and I’m captivated in no time. It’s like soaking in a hot spring, and I still come back to it today.
4. The Witcher 3 (2015)
Where Skyrim gives freedom, The Witcher 3 offers a stronger overall RPG. The devs finally got a decent combat system, and wrapped it in a stunning world replete with well-drawn characters and stories from the books. The final DLC set in Toussaint was like a long kiss goodbye to Geralt, and one of the sweetest game endings I’ve experienced.
3. Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)
Isometric RPGs had a revival this decade, and this one is the best of the bunch. Its crowning jewel is the combat system that encourages chaos as you combine elemental effects. I still have flashbacks to that fight in the Blackpits where everything is on fire. I played through the game twice, just so I could experience each of the characters.
2. XCOM 2 (2016)
While XCOM: Enemy Unknown revived the grid-combat/management overlay genre, XCOM 2 perfected it. War of the Chosen adds so much extra flavour and narrative, it completes the package and makes it waaay less buggy.
1. Civilization VI (2016)
Civilization had a strong decade. Civ V was more of a revolution of the franchise, introducing a hex-grid and eliminating stacks of doom. Civ VI took it even further, making city building more interesting by requiring buildings to be placed on tiles around a city. Civ VI is less of a history simulator than Paradox titles, and it still drags in the late game, but it continues to be the first thing I turn to whenever I get a strategy itch. I just wish the AI was better at combat.
Minecraft: if my kids had a vote this would be number 1, no question.
Dishonored 2: my favourite immersive sim of the decade. The clockwork house level is genius. I hope this genre survives into the next decade.
Disco Elysium: what a sublime game. The stat system is so subtle and interesting, making high stats as dangerous as low ones because they become more influential in your thoughts. You may rely on your reaction speed to size up situations, but it can also make you jump to faulty conclusions. Few games actually influence the way I think about myself, but this one did.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: this represents our family’s “Welcome to Nintendo” moment. It was bundled with our Switch and feels like a big warm hug. Turns out, open worlds don’t have to be grimdark, and I just wanted to climb every mountain. Nintendo, where have you been all my life?
God of War: my favourite of Sony’s prestige action titles. It introduced more depth to Kratos than just limitless rage. I love the way the map is put together, such that entirely new areas open up after you perform certain actions, with no loading screens. It is mind-boggling.
One of the joys of these types of lists is setting the parameters. Do you choose games based on what they meant to you or for their wider influence over culture? Does your game of the decade list reflect games that resonated or games that quietly influenced bigger/more successful games? Rather than set specific boundaries, rules, or mechanisms to help me narrow down my list. I've decided to go for a "sampler plate," where each individual entry follows completely different protocols. Note that the order is arbitrary.
I hope you enjoy it!
5. Skyrim (2011)
Vanilla Skyrim hasn't aged well. For starters, it features a mind-numbingly stupid narrative, and the seams of this giant, immersive world are easy to split open. It shouldn't have worked at all. And yet… exploring in this big, janky world is undeniably fun. Despite the first-draft feel of the main storyline, there are all sorts of fun side quests and terrific emergent-narrative experiences. This is one of the first games I remember swapping stories with other people playing it. I found these people camping and a bear showed up and ate them! Oh man, that's wild! Have you been to… This is the first game that pops to mind when I think about getting lost in a fantasy world or escaping reality. I’ve always thought of The Elder Scrolls series as interesting, failed experiments, and Skyrim is no exception. But it is also the shoulder upon which stands many of the giants of the last ten years: Breathe of the Wild, The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Dragon's Dogma. It is hard to imagine what games would look like without Skyrim existing.
4. Gone Home (2013)
Gone Home is the most important indie game of the decade. It was a revelation when it released. Not only did it it inspire a whole boatload of amazing walking sims, its influence seeped into gaming culture writ large. It is a game which arguably single-handedly forced the medium to start growing up. As such, the anger it inspired from some of the worst elements of gaming culture was also a canary in the coal mine for the huge cultural battle that would break out roughly a year later.
3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn't the best of the new XCOM games; heck, it is a far cry from the best turn based strategy game made this decade. But it is chiefly responsible for a tactics revolution in gaming. It sits on the forefront of inspiring light RPG mechanics to migrate into other gaming genres. People talk about how Souls-like games, Breathe of the Wild, and Rogue Legacy inspired some the mechanical trends of the decade, but for my money it is XCOM that has had the most resonance.
2. Kentucky Route Zero (2013)
In terms of raw artistic accomplishment, Kentucky Route Zero stands out more than any other game made this decade. It is a beautifully designed, scored, and realized work that isn't afraid to leave audiences confused (and hanging for 4+ years). I think it has quietly moved the Overton window for gaming narratives away from plot and toward other possibilities. It is a gutsy, audacious masterpiece that completely transcends its genre.
1. Bloodborne (2015)
This is a game that is deeply personal to me. Most people who found their way to Souls-like games got there via Dark Souls. For me, it was Bloodborne. It is in dialogue with so many things—Lovecraft, Dark Souls, Victorian-era horror, etc. And yet it manages to construct a deeply specific identity for itself. I don't think anything is flawless, but Bloodborne is about as close to flawless as you can get.
Stellaris, Slay the Spire, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Hollow Knight, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Unavowed, BattleTech, The Banner Saga
Big influential games I haven't played: Minecraft, Fortnite, Destiny
This was the decade that introduced me to the front page of GWJ, and sent my voice around the world on the Conference Call, so a special, heartfelt award goes to Erik “Wordsmythe” Hanson for recruiting me, Shawn “Certis” Andrich for letting him, and Amanda “Amoebic” Knowlton for keeping me. You all are the closest thing to friends that I have in this world, outside of my spouse and immediate family, and I want to make sure I say thank you to all of you.
Now, enough of the sappy stuff. On to the games of the greatest decade so far!
5. Spintires: Mudrunner (2017)
When the first Spintires came out, it challenged my conception of what video games actually were, and rocked (and muddied) my proverbial socks. It was my gateway drug to mundane simulators and the Dark Souls of mundane simulators at the same time. The follow up, Mudrunner, is even better.
4. Monster Hunter Generations: Ultimate (2018)
While all the Johnny-Come-Latelies were raving about Monster Hunter World, the best version of Monster Hunter Generations arrived on the Nintendo Switch, bringing both the gorgeous, big-screen visuals and the portability that, for me, defined the series. My wife and I dumped hundreds of hours as a team—her with her giant blades, and me with my light bowgun—bringing down fantastic beasts and looking fantastic while doing it. I like it so much, I keep almost rebuying it digitally so I’ll never accidentally leave it at home.
3. Portal 2 (2011)
Cave Johnson here, to tell you about an exciting opportunity. We’re talking about a real moon shot here… what? Speak up, man! Oh. Our buffoons tell me that I just gave you a spoiler. What? Yes, I know the word ‘boffins.’ That wasn’t a mistake. I said what I damn well meant.
2. Bulletstorm (2011)
Many people said this was the Duke Nukem game we deserved, so they put Duke Nukem in it. Granted, they did it with as little work as possible, but they still did it. And for making a rad game even radder, it makes my number 2 slot for the 2010s.
1. Duke Nukem Forever (2011)
No, I am not kidding. Yes, you should have expected it. I’ve bought and finished this game—twice—on two seperate platforms (that’s four times, for those of you keeping score). And I’ve bought and played all of the single-player DLC. And I’m currently working on another play-through just to get all of the achievements. There are only three or four games that have earned this level of commitment from me, and none of them were released in the past ten years. So congratulations to The Duke for capturing at least one unironic award for game of the decade.
Destiny 2 for making me realize that I don’t hate multiplayer shooters like Overwatch, I just hate bad ones. Like Overwatch.
Doom for helping me capture the feeling of what it must have been like to own a gaming PC in the 1990s.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for helping me understand why people like Legend of Zelda games.
Fallout 76 for bringing my wife and me closer together, and for being a multiplayer game without the worst part of multiplayer games: other players.
Farming Simulator for always being there.
In some ways, it isn't fair to whittle down 10 years of experiences into a succinct list, but in other ways, it's fun to do. My list started out at about 30, then I crossed off a few here and there, weighing them against the juggernauts that now fill my top slots. For me, it all came down to how the game spoke to me, the emotional resonance left behind after I moved on. The games on my list are the ones that have stuck with me, that have changed me, that have defined my hobby for the past 10 years. What a decade!
5. Mass Effect 3 (2012)
I had no problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3. I considered the entire game to be the ending of Shepard’s journey, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. My Shepard romanced no one, but was dear friends with every companion. She kept everyone alive, sometimes by her leadership, sometimes by blind luck. The final tour through the last staging area, the rousing speech, the phone calls and final conversations with my friends—it was one of the most satisfying endings to a series. And it only got better with the Citadel DLC. I’m due a replay of the full trilogy, but I keep hoping it’ll show up for the Switch first.
I cannot forget to mention the multiplayer. It was tight, balanced, and challenging. I played so much of it.
And for the record, my universe is now green.
4. That Dragon, Cancer (2016)
Ryan and Amy Green had a young son with untreatable cancer. One night in the hospital, Ryan spent the entire night rocking his ailing son, but the child would not stop crying. Nothing helped. Shortly afterward, Ryan decided to make a game about that night, about losing his son to cancer. It is simple; it is beautiful; it is emotional.
If you’re a parent, you will cry. If you’ve had cancer touch your life, you will ache. If you have had any palpable loss in your life, this game will tear at you. But it will also escort you through all that pain to a place of peace and solace.
Everyone should play this game. Everyone who can’t, for whatever reason, should at least listen to this episode of the Reply All podcast about it.
3. Super Mario Maker (2015)
My daughter was two years old. She wanted to play games like daddy did, but she couldn't bear the idea of her character dying. She didn't even like to watch when my character died. So I spent hours building Mario Maker levels for her that had no fail conditions. No enemies, no pits; just coins and jumps and sound effects.
My favorite moment will always be the first time she saw an enclosed, enlarged goomba. She squealed with delight and cooed “oooh, he giant!” as she ran past, completely safe.
2. Celeste (2018)
I summited Celeste Mountain in 2018. It is one of my greatest gaming achievements. Not just because it was hard and I stuck it out until the credits rolled, but because I have been sticking it out every day for my entire life. And this one time, I got to see a brighter future than I’d ever seen or imagined possible.
I understand Madeline. I live her fear, her uneasiness, her insecurity. I have anxiety and depression triggered and compounded by a high degree of sensitivity to the world around me. I feel alone and lonely most of the time. My inner voice is both my greatest resource and my strongest critic. I have always been climbing Celeste Mountain. But now, I can finally imagine what it feels like to reach the peak. And a small part of me has started to believe that one day, I will.
1. Rocket League (2015)
For more than four-and-a-half years, nearly half of the decade in question, Rocket League has been my go-to game. Only Team Fortress 2 ever captivated my gaming time this way. I owe so much longevity to the devout members of the community who show up week after week for Saturday night Bottle Rockets, who hop on some random evenings for a few matches, who used to swap highlight videos in the forums but have since replaced them with videos on how to actually get better.
I guess my game of the decade is more about the community of the decade. See you out there!
My experience with Minecraft was almost entirely solo. I built a pixel-perfect replica of the old man who gives Link his first sword. Then, when I lost that world, I built it again. I built an endless roller coaster. I recorded video-tours my world to send to my wife while she was in Europe. I watched season after season of Doctor Who while digging out caverns and searching for diamonds. It deserves a mention, if not one of the higher honors of the decade.
Florence is the perfect game about relationships. Simply sweet, charmingly bitter, empoweringly honest. To say more would be to spoil the journey.
My final honorable mention goes to joining Gamers with Jobs in 2011. Simply put, my best gaming decision of the decade.
Those are some of our favorites, and we'd love to hear about some of yours. If you haven't already done so, be sure to visit the GWJ 2010s Community Game of the Decade thread and post your list. You only have until February 1st, 2020, 9am GMT+1 (that's 3am EST, or midnight PST). Our heartfelt thanks to Eleima for all the effort that goes into the thread and results!