As a gamer, I keep a lot of lists — games I’ve finished, games I own, games in my backlog… After spending about 38 years (and counting!) on videogames it’s impossible to keep all of it straight in my head, so lists are a huge help.
As I was putting the wraps on my Top 10 of 2019, I realized that we’re also at the end of a decade, 2010-2019, so what better time to put some of those lists to good use? I would have been hard-pressed to remember what titles I picked as the best in their respective years, but thanks to the magical power of listmaking, I didn’t need to. I had it all written down!
Just to be clear, these picks aren’t the most important or most influential games of the decade — that’s a different sort of list to write — but these were all titles I had a fantastic time with and I figured it’d be a hoot to revisit them all. Yes, a hoot.
Thanks in advance for reading, and if there are some games here that you aren’t familiar with or haven’t tried, I hope you give them a shot and dig them as much as I have.
Bring on the next ten years!
2010 – Deadly Premonition my second opinion
This game is infamous for being so rough in terms of control, production values, combat, and other areas. However, for me, giving a title top honors is hardly about the best graphics or the most polish — Deadly Premonition is one of the most challenging, creative, brave and underappreciated titles I’ve seen. The work of director Swery 65 more than makes up for the technical shortcomings with a intriguing storyline and superbly-written characters I — protagonist Francis York Morgan is someone I’ll never, ever forget. Supporting its cerebral side, DP also offers a fresh take on the open-world genre that manages to avoid the usual “blow everything up” chaos and keeps razor-sharp focus on the riveting story. There’s no question that Deadly Premonition was anathema to many, but for those of a certain bent it’s a singular ride.
2011 – Dead Island my second opinion
Intense, visceral combat. An open world large enough to explore, yet one that never felt empty or pointless. Fantastic atmosphere and beautiful environments. Co-op RPG-style progression. “Realistic” quests that one could imagine doing if zombies were real. Dead Island offered all of this, and more. Although many contemporaries featured the undead, very few at the time attempted to create a zombie apocalypse in the way often written about in books or shown in movies—scavenging environments for necessities, establishing safe houses, finding medicine, and so on. Although it’s not a perfect simulation, it came closer than any other game before it, and did it in fine style.
Unfortunately, it went out to reviewers in an egregiously broken state and they rightfully trashed it. However, once the code was patched and all the rough edges were filed off, Dead Island was a true gem and went on to enjoy a long, successful run with strong fan support carrying it.
Fun fact: the GOTY edition of Dead Island was only possible because GameCritics picked it as our GOTY — we were the only site in the entire industry who gave it that much love, and we took tons of flak for doing so. Sadly, the game’s PR reps not only backed out of plans to celebrate the win, they never even thanked us openly for making that version possible. Weaksauce!
2012 – The Walking Dead my review of episode 1
Although plenty of people ribbed me for picking two zombie-themed games as GOTY in a row, I didn’t choose The Walking Dead because I’m a horror superfan. No, the truth is that Telltale took one of the strongest properties in entertainment at that time and delivered the best material they ever created.
The story of Lee, Clementine, Kenny, and the rest of the survivors in a zombie-infested world isn’t so gripping because of the undead, but because they’re portrayed as believable, realistic human beings trapped in a nightmarish situation — it’s incredibly easy to relate to their struggles and choices. It’s rare to feel a connection to characters as strong as the one I felt here, and it just goes to show that there are endless stories left to tell which have nothing to do with bleeding-edge technology.
2013 – The Last of Us my second opinion
As a critic who puts a lot of weight on writing and characterization, Naughty Dog knocked it out of the park with the relationship between Joel and Ellie. After starting with a powerful opening sequence, it takes the time to properly lay an emotional foundation that creates opportunities for natural dialogue and situations despite the post-apocalyptic setting.
That same richness extends to the environments, which have no shortage of tales to tell. The most memorable example was the posthumous tale of a man hiding in a sewer, and how he unwittingly doomed a mother and her children. It would have been easy to skip such lore and rush the player to the next combat sequence, but all of the details imbue the adventure with thoughtful, meaningful atmosphere.
Oh, and the DLC titled Left Behind? It’s one of the finest pieces of videogame content ever created.
2014 – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc & Goodbye Despair my review
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Visual Novels. Many that I’ve tried had similar issues — tedious, verbose writing and a profound lack of pizzazz in production. Not so with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and its sequel, Goodbye Despair. Once they start, they spring to life and there’s never a chance of being bored. (I count both of them as a one winner since the stories are so tightly interwoven and they both came out in the same year.)
Beyond flashy visuals with faux-3D pop and hot pink blood, its mix of elements elevated it past many other VNs — there’s plenty of straight-up reading to be done, but there are also investigations, building relationships, and an active “trial” system that keep things popping, not to mention the fact that one character dies in each chapter, so the player is constantly kept off-balance by never knowing who the next to go is. It’s all wonderfully tense and brisk for the genre.
Last but certainly not least, the series launched a genuinely iconic character with Monokuma, the murderous black-and-white bear . I’ve got a stuffed version looking over my shoulder right now and I don’t trust him…
2015 – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
While The Witcher 3 is extremely long and has pacing problems (especially in the final third) there’s no denying that CD Projekt Red created something that pushed the open-world genre forward. Every quest I went on was interesting and varied, the land felt real and had a sense of history and culture, and the writing was second to none. The campaign successfully navigates some very difficult material, as well.
The characters are just as strong as the script — Geralt of Rivia is already ranked among the greats of gaming, and he’s lifted by an extremely strong cast of wonderful female heroes. Without Keira, Triss, Cerys, Ciri and Yennefer, the adventure wouldn’t have been a fraction of what it was.
It says a lot about the quality of the game that I did absolutely everything in it, and that’s no small amount of content — it was all just so good, I couldn’t bear to miss even the smallest sidequest. And speaking of sidequests, the Hearts of Stone DLC is an outstanding achievement and a pinnacle of the medium similar to TLoU‘s Left Behind. It was a great decade for DLC!
2016 was a tough year for me… I absolutely could not choose just a single game, so I chucked the normal rules out the window and ran with a three-way split.
2016 – Let It Die Darren Forman’s review
Let it Die is a perfect example of fantastic gameplay trumping flashy graphics or triple-A budgets. Running through floor after floor of a decrepit tower while scrounging for broken weapons and battling for my life against raging psychopaths is tense stuff, heightened by the moment-to-moment management of resources and the possibility of not making it back to home base before being overcome by enemies. The supporting systems gave players reasons to come back every day, and it was satisfying in both bite-sized chunks and extended sessions. And the style! It’s crazy, hilarious, and brutal, all in equal measure. It eventually fizzled out by fumbling the postgame, but I put more than 200 hours in before that point and loved every minute.
2016 – Overwatch
I’m not generally a fan of first-person shooters and I like online multiplayer titles even less, but Overwatch managed to click hard with me thanks to the strategic interplay between characters, and by emphasizing positive aspects of play instead of the usual stat-based dick-measuring. It also didn’t hurt that the character design is generally great, even though Blizzard manages to completely cock up the cultural aspects on a regular basis… That aside, Overwatch was quickly embedded into my family’s daily rotation and we spent many, many hours as a father/mother/son team. Epic family bonding!
2016 – The Last Guardian @MikeSuskie’s review
This game shouldn’t exist, and after it was confirmed as not-vaporware-we’re-serious-this-time-for-real, The Last Guardian should have been a failure. Thanks to switching platforms and spending nearly a decade in development, no one would have been surprised at all if it flopped. But it didn’t flop… it was brilliant. Not only is it absolutely dripping with Fumito Ueda’s signature visual style, the griffin-like creature Trico is chillingly real. The way it moves and reacts is utterly convincing, and by making the game about building a relationship with this animal, it delivers a new, challenging experience that requires patience and understanding of the kind that I can honestly say I’ve never had to employ in a videogame before.
2017 – Warframe my review
After thumbing my nose at convention by choosing three winners the year before, I did it again by picking a GOTY that wasn’t even released in the year I chose it for. The reason? Due to the changing nature of technology, things like patching and add-ons mean that very few games are ever at their best when released, and some go through radical redesigns or rebalances over time. How developers handle post-release is now A Thing and it counts for a lot, so from this perspective I felt it was only fair to consider Warframe for top honors four years after it debuted. It wasn’t a great experience when it first arrived, but it had become the best thing I played that year, and was significantly different than when I had first tried it.
Frankly, I dismissed it several times in the past because it just wasn’t up to par, but the developers never gave up the quest to constantly improve and it turned into a fantastic experience full of stylish action, not to mention it’s one of the very few games in history where I’ve actually wanted to group up with strangers and had almost universally positive experiences when doing so. There’s also tons of content that could easily last for months or years, but it’s also able to be digested in bite-size chunks, with friends or without.
Something else to celebrate is that the developers of this free-to-play title do microtransactions and games-as-service correctly – no small feat considering how many egregious examples of greed there are. Oh, and that story? When it kicks in 200 hours after you start, it’s amaaaaaazing. No joke!
2018 – Into the Breach review by Mike Suskie
Brilliant in every aspect, Into the Breach takes the standard template of turn-based tactics and tosses it on its ear by crafting a system that is absolutely transparent about what it’s going to do, and then challenges the player to make the best use of available resources. There are no tricks and no ‘gotcha!’ moments – it’s an honest, straightforward presentation that asks the player to rise to the occasion.
Each team of specialized mechs is widely varied, and brings a new spin to the combat. Some are defensive, some are offensive, some specialize in damage over time, some focus on melee, some are about repositioning… the diversity and clever design keeps each session fresh while also teaching the player through time and iteration about the sophistication hidden under the seemingly-simple hood.
Breach is also intensely replayable thanks to custom options, and the fast, bite-sized nature of missions. It’s rare to see something so completely thought-through, so rich, and so deep. I honestly can’t find fault with it, and could not pull myself away until I had done every single thing in every possible permutation. Into the Breach is a master class in small-scale design that manages to be more sophisticated than games with ten times the budget, and it’s polished from every angle. If there’s such a thing as a perfect game, this is it.
2019 – Control
As you already know if you read my Top 10 of 2019 list, I absolutely loved Control. It is by far the best thing that Remedy Entertainment has ever made, and I was glued from start to finish.
The moment-to-moment play works perfectly with main character Jessie’s ability to telekinetically grab and throw things, and there’s a wonderful balance found in going from mental powers to gunplay and back again. Control was also confident enough to build in quiet spaces and let the player breathe between skirmishes — it was hugely appreciated.
As someone who loves supernatural elements, interdimensional creatures and all sorts of mystery, it was also right up my alley by recalling things like The X-Files, Warehouse 13 and even Twin Peaks. Supporting this, the sidequests were wonderfully unpredictable, and I was surprised to find an entire cast of NPCs to interact with. The environment was also a memorable character — and perhaps the most important one. The Oldest House is an impossibly abstract metaphysical creation that serves both mechanical and narrative functions, and I couldn’t get enough of it.