It’s the most anticipated time of the decade. As I rank my pics for the top 10 best games of the past 10 years starting in January 2010, there’ll always be too much left unsaid. I’ve seen the rise of superb open-world games, titles with graphical qualities almost equal to reality’s beauty, and several art games pushing the boundaries in storytelling, world-building or other aesthetic aspects.

Sadly, we’ve also witnessed the rise of a number of terrible trends in the gaming industry with the arrival of microtransactions, popular MOBAs with deliberately addictive qualities and tons of mindless violence (with the occasional racist or sexist titles in between major ‘terrorist shooters’). I do leave the generation with high hopes, though, as this past decade’s best offerings have ensured me that the wait is ALWAYS worth it. Finally, let’s hope accessibility options become more inclusive in quality titles (looking at you, default subtitles and resize options).

Similar to the game industry’s growth, I’ve grown a lot as a gamer and writer. Whereas I started the decade addicted to AAA releases and online multiplayer titles, getting into game criticism has opened up entirely new viewpoints on arthouse games (and indie games in particular). While I’m a less merciful critic for it, my love for the medium has only grown. This list can be interpreted as my appreciation for the beauty this past decade has delivered.

Quick disclaimers: In this list I will only include games I’ve played and completed, of which the main criteria is my regard for the title’s essentiality. While educative or entertaining aspects can contribute to this matter, they’re no sole reason for deserving a spot in this list (the approach being video games as art form rather than video games as affective or entertainment medium). The qualities of the titles listed are also beyond doubt in my opinion, which doesn’t mean I would score them all a 10/10 (no genuine work of art can be graded), but the rating in this top 10 is more about providing my highest recommendation for playing them.

Furthermore, games listed aren’t remastered versions or ports UNLESS the first entry form also came out in the same decade. The given date and platform are the year of release and the platform I played it on (which might differ in year).

Also, while my list mainly consists of adventure games, I tried to keep the subgenres listed as diverse as possible, which means that I won’t be including two awesome games of the same subgenre if one of the two is clearly superior to the other, but I will refer to some recommendations in the same genre when describing the games. In some cases, these references almost made the list instead of the listed games here.

Finally, there might be phenomenal games I’ve overlooked or never played (in which case, shame on me) and I’m very open to any kind of recommendation or discussion in that regard. There are some titles I have played of which I believe a great part of the community has very high opinions despite me not including them. Many of the reasons I give for excluding some popular titles are based on how they aged in my opinion (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for example), or how the storytelling lacks depth.

10> Undertale (RPG/Adventure, Switch, 2015)

If indie games got their foot in the door in the 2000s, the 2010s have been an amazing decade for influential indie games, with many of them reaching the mainstream. The prime example might be Undertale. While the game is notorious for its dedicated fan base, this title amazingly makes use of game conventions to push the player in a certain direction: Undertale basically has two extreme routes requiring ‘perfect’ runs to complete. The soundtrack is phenomenal, the storytelling is perfectly aware of narrative tropes in RPG games and the levels have their own unique twists or humorous solutions, while the graphics… well. But what stands out is its utilization of the player’s perception of morality for gameplay purposes; convenient options for progression continuously collide with what many will view as the morally ‘correct option’, making for a sophisticated experience with everlasting impact.

Also worth checking out:

§  Papers, Please (PC, 2013), in which mechanics are introduced as commands by a totalitarian government in a supposedly communist state, while the player has a dying family to care for. It’s a matter of ‘us or them’ at times.

§  We: The Revolution (Switch, 2019), like mentioned in my review, pushes the player with its mechanics to become a corrupt judge in the French Revolution.

9> Doki Doki Literature Club (Visual Novel, PC, 2017)

Speaking of indie games reaching the mainstream, DDLC is a free visual novel meant as advertisement material (for a TBA title), but managed to create a cult following and is impressive for its unmatched ability to criticize its own genre. It also frequently breaks the fourth wall, and it felt like every minute of gameplay, despite the first two hours being tedious, was carefully composed to make the product’s meaning stronger. On the surface level, such heavy themes as depression and contemporary society’s disinterest in literature are explored in a subtle manner. But underneath, the asymmetric information between developer and player, character stereotypes, and a player’s expectations and agency are seriously criticized, while never losing the original lightheartedness in presentation. It makes for a revolutionary title.

Also worth checking out:

§  Spec Ops: The Line (PC, 2012), which isn’t a visual novel, but does criticize its own genre, the (third-person) shooter. The game questions gun violence being treated as conventional gameplay trope.

§  Game Dev Tycoon (PC, 2012 and iOS, 2017), which is the opposite of a critique on gameplay conventions. Instead, it accurately portrays the way the mainstream views gameplay production, becoming the convention the other mentioned titles so nicely criticize. For reference, read GC’s review.

8> Celeste (2D Platformer, Switch, 2018)

Celeste tells a story about depression and simultaneously manages to turn the anxious emotions of lead character Madeline into a polished platforming experience requiring quick reflexes. Madeline has to climb a mountain while being delayed by ghosts of the past and inner demons, making for a simple yet effective relation between the gameplay and narrative. This central metaphor is also a great example of how games can enhance the story an artist wants to tell. Next to its narrative qualities, Celeste also has a very relaxing checkpoint system in which the player spawns right before the fatal obstacle when failing a stage. The gimmick can likewise be interpreted as a metaphor, meaning no matter how much someone struggles to overcome a crisis, life always provides room to try again.

Also worth checking out:

§  ­Hollow Knight (Switch, 2017), which is just as polished as Celeste regarding its mechanics and platforming or combat challenges. It also tells a strong story about a lost civilization, albeit less integrated in gameplay.

§  Please Knock on My Door (PC, 2017), which hits very hard for anyone familiar with mental issues such as depression and anxiety. For more information, you can check my (first!) review on GC about it here.

7> Abzu (Adventure, PS4, 2016)

Abzu has received a lot of harsh criticism for its short playthrough time and lack of interesting gameplay elements. That’s not how I tend to look at Abzu and similar titles. In Abzu, a confined ocean is practically explorable. The visual beauty is here, and holding onto a blue whale as it jumps through the air is simply spectacular, but Abzu hits a homerun in its environmental storytelling. There’s no explicit narration; the surroundings tell the player all she has to know to understand what happened in this underwater world. There are references to global warming and the pollution of the ocean, since ancient human technologies are violent towards fish and similar robots are portrayed as the collective enemy. But through the two hours that its campaign runs, my love for the natural beauty normally so distant to us on the land felt reinforced.

Also worth checking out:

§  Journey (PS4, 2012), a similar experience to Abzu, sharing a similar art style and knack for environmental storytelling, in which an ancient civilization is discovered and central to the player’s progress (or central in creating obstacles for the player to overcome). Instead of sea levels, Journey takes place in the desert and ends on a high snowy mountain.

§  Flower (PS4, 2009), which is the spiritual predecessor of both Journey and Abzu. It’s more than a game with visual spectacle as its strongest aspect is its environmental storytelling. Being in these types of games just makes a player feel empowered and makes one concerned for the well-being of the planet, which can only be viewed as a good thing.

6> Super Mario Odyssey (3D Platformer, Switch, 2017)

The first thought that comes up when anything ever mentions Odyssey is JOY. On the surface, Odyssey is a polished, innovative and smartly designed platformer in a 3D space with the identity-switching Cappy as a real game-changer. But what Odyssey evokes in a player morphs it into a phenomenal game. When playing this latest Mario, I genuinely felt like being eternally young, which is everything anyone ever would want to be, right? Capped off with a joyous soundtrack, this is the stylish game for players young and old.

Also worth checking out:

§  Persona 5 (PS4, 2017), which is not a platformer, but a JRPG. It still feels kind of similar to Odyssey because both have such a glorious way of producing a stylish video game with an amazing soundtrack. Style is eternal, after all.

§  Super Mario Maker (2) (Switch, 2019), another great recent Mario franchise perfectly fitting to re-experience the creativity of fans through the different styles of Mario.

5> What Remains of Edith Finch (Adventure, PS4, 2017)

Can a “walking simulator” even be considered a videogame? Well, for anyone in doubt, there’s What Remains of Edith Finch. In possibly the best year of video game history, this indie title still managed to make a very deserved name for itself as one of the best narratively driven adventures of all time. The Finch family’s misfortune is interesting enough as subject, but what drives the title home are the iconic short stories giving all the family members their unique addition to the drama. If anything, gameplay is utilized optimally to create a superior narrative.

Also worth checking out:

§  Gone Home (PC, 2013), the innovator in the genre, one of the first titles to create an ‘explorable story’ with much of its narrative embedded in objects found in the game space. There’s no spectacular high tension gameplay involved whatsoever, but the tension never fades either since the player cannot ever escape a feeling of something dark lying in wait for her.

§  Dear Esther (PC, 2012), which is a very interesting playthrough because it makes the player deal with the questions of what defines a game. Gameplay is limited to the minimal and therefore easily criticized. It can serve as a good test to see how important gameplay is in contemporary gaming conventions.

§  Night in the Woods (Switch, 2017), a few days in the life of a college dropout featuring a solid mix-up of everyday chores, lovely guitar solos and… a cult slaughtering teenagers in town. It teaches the player valuable lessons about priorities in friendship and has egoism as its central theme, as well as the collapse of the small town in contemporary society. While criticism on a lack of gameplay could be somewhat justifiable, I’ve hardly experienced anything feeling so real.

4> INSIDE (Side-scrolling Adventure, PC, 2016)

In Inside, the player controls a boy running from a creepy group of scientists and paramilitaries through a forest, abandoned town and laboratory with a limited set of skills (jumping, ducking and grabbing onto light items). An appealing aspect of Inside is how the 2D gameplay is presented in a 3D environment, giving enemies a huge advantage in this side-scrolling puzzle adventure. The obvious routes through levels are inaccessible because the player character can’t move sideways. Enemies can therefore approach from convenient locations while the player has to figure out creative ways to avoid them AND find a way through. But the climax is in Inside’s theming, dealing with manipulation of masses and technological control from inside a mechanized institute. This metaphor for the player’s control over the main character is well executed and the many hidden layers make a good case for the game being one of the most sophisticated narratives in the gaming market.

Also worth checking out:

§  LIMBO (Switch, 2010), from the same developers as INSIDE, is simply phenomenal in its approach to darker and heavier themes, and next to the snapped necks of a suicidal society and giant killer spiders, there’s plenty of sensational emotion and great puzzle gameplay to be enjoyed. My initial review for the title on Switch can be found here.

3> The Stanley Parable (Adventure, PC, 2013)

Two doors to determine one’s fate. But a choice is presented. Again. And again. And again. The Stanley Parable is the king of essential game convention criticism with its phenomenal contradiction between instrumental and free play. This first-person 3D adventure uses a narrator to describe objectives which the player can follow for a quick happy ending… or ignore to question one’s identity indefinitely. Stanley gives the player the choice in just how disobedient she wants to be. What follows is up to the player, but almost every path has a ridiculously well thought-out philosophy behind it that goes beyond questioning gameplay conventions and even the player’s sanity. In fact, the scenario of an office employee only having to hit the called-for buttons repeatedly to fulfill its objectives is a pretty brilliant comparison with pre-rendered game objectives. What a player’s thoughts evolve into will obviously differ individually, but the fact that Stanley is thought-provoking is obvious.

Also worth checking out:

§  The Beginner’s Guide (PC, 2015), a great narrative experience by the designers of The Stanley Parable expanding on a game developer’s existential crises and how they can be evident from its work. The title also deals with issues of exposing an author’s work for not so formidable purposes. It’s a prime example of how games can be emotional expressions of authors and how just very few developers manage to translate their feelings to games.

2> Bioshock Infinite (Action-Adventure, PC, 2013)

“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” A line iconic for the phenomenal narrative presented in first-person shooter-adventure Bioshock Infinite. Rather than telling a story mostly through gameplay as many other titles on this list, Infinite presents a cinematic story with a few moral choices and many options to explore extra embedded narrative. The solid gameplay never gets in the way of the narrative and is enjoyable. Infinite’s story takes center stage, though. The richly inspired background city of Columbia is aesthetically beautiful and has plenty of dystopian elements present to be discovered. Main characters Elizabeth and Booker have a tense and ever-developing relationship and are backed by the amazing performances of Courtney Draper and Troy Baker. But what ensures Infinite’s spot so high up this list is its finale, in which it proves that AAA games CAN tell boundary-pushing stories. In this category, Infinite is the game to beat.

Also worth checking out:

§  The Last of Us (PS4, 2013), which has a similar relationship to Elizabeth and Booker with Ellie and Joel (amazingly performed as well, by Ashley Johnson and… Troy Baker). This is also the most recommendable aspect of TLOU since the mediocre gameplay and bland storytelling are constantly in each other’s way for the non-cinematic or embedded parts.

§  The Walking Dead (PC, 2012), which also has a similar relationship to this father-daughter-like chemistry found in the other games. Just like in InfiniteTWD is a test about life and moral choices in an apocalyptic scenario.

1> The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Open-World Adventure, Switch, 2017)

Gaming reached its peak in March 2017, with the release of the Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild. This is it. The greatest game of all time. But more than that, it’s an authentic world with a smart ecology; instead of trying to represent reality, it bends a few rules of physics and infuses Hyrule with its own unique art style. And it works wonderfully. The open world actually makes me believe this exact universe CAN exist somewhere. But next to the formal aspects, this Zelda also makes me feel genuinely happy. It’s like fantasy coming to life through wonder and realism, yet it also portrays a global warming-like crisis accurately. It makes living next to wildlife feel natural, yet gives the player plenty of room to make mechanical items and weaponry useful in combat and travelling. And most of all: it allows Link to jump. Finally. The gaming industry has leapt forward.

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