Finally, it’s over! The decade nobody could decide what to call. Is ‘twenty-tens’ really the best we could come up with? Anyway, it’s done. In less than a fortnight we’ll be rocketing on to the twenties, which will hopefully be roaring, but not like last time, and not in the sense that everything is on fire due to humanity microwaving the Earth like a giant baked potato either.
The next decade has already got some massively exciting games just waiting to pounce all over our slightly older faces. Bloodlines 2, System Shock 3, Doom Eternal, Half-Life: Alyx and of course, Cyberpunk 2077. I think it’s going to be quite the year. But I wanted to take a moment (a 2,500 word long moment) and reflect upon the decade about to end, by picking my personal favourite games from each of the last ten year, along with my choice for the single most significant game across the decade.
This is very much a personal list, although I’ve considered it at some length Nonetheless, feel free to share your own favourites in the comments section. I’d love to see how your decade has differed from mine.
2010: Mass Effect 2
In retrospect, it was absurd to think Mass Effect 3 could ever conclude the series on a satisfactory note, when Mass Effect 2 had already delivered the best ending to a game that had ever been, is, and will be. I still get a buzz of adrenaline thinking about the final, heart-stopping couple of hours that is Mass Effect 2’s incredible Suicide Mission.
Brilliant as it is, however, putting so much emphasis on those final few hours is unfair to the rest of Mass Effect 2, which remains on of the best-paced RPGs around. There are so many incredible highlights. The shocking, explosive opening sequence. Battling the gangs in the bowels of Omega station. Fighting through the prison ship to release Jack, and its superbly crafted loyalty missions, particularly those of Mordin and Thane.
Indeed, what made all this thrilling action work was how Mass Effect 2 encouraged you to bond with its characters. Like an ensemble TV show, its loyalty missions placed the focus on one specific individual, encouraging you to get to know them better, to understand their personal plights and help them in resolving them. In this way, Mass Effect made you feel close to each of its crew. This made the possibility of losing them in the final run absolutely terrifying, the engine of the tension in its thrilling conclusion.
2011: Dark Souls
Probably the second-most influential game of the last ten years, Dark Souls has been talked and written about so much that trying to sum it up in a couple of hundred words seems impossible. I could wax lyrical about its revolutionary approach to notions of challenge and achievement, it’s rich and complex combat system, it’s mysterious, piecemeal storytelling, or the time I beat Gravelord Nito on the first try and leapt so high I about put my head through the ceiling.
What’s stuck with me all these years, and what makes Dark Souls still superior the more refined games that followed it, is Lordran, that beautifully intricate and achingly sad fantasy world, rife with shortcuts and secret passages and strange inhabitants.
I love how each area of Lordran feels entirely distinct, from the dilapidated stonework of the Undead Burg, through the ramshackle walkways of Blighttown, to the deathly terror of New Londo Ruins. And yet, they’re all far more connected than you initially imagine. Riding the elevator from Queelag’s Lair right up back to Firelink Shrine is one of the moments when you realise just how good the game you’re playing is.
Unlocking Lordran’s many, many secrets remains one of my most rewarding experiences with any game. And I believe it’s what that will maintain its status as From Software’s masterpiece, even as the studio produces slicker, better-looking games that chase after Dark Souls’.
2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
One of the main themes of the 2010s, as demonstrated and largely influenced by Dark Souls, is the return of by-design challenging games. Along with this has come the annoying misapprehension that difficulty is what makes games good. This is not to say that difficult games are bad, just that its often touted as the element that defines a game’s quality, when in fact that keystone is usually somewhere else.
Take X-COM, Firaxis’ majestic strategy game about saving the world from an alien menace. Talk to anyone about X-COM, and the first thing they’ll mention is that time their squad got absolutely minced by a Cyberdisk, or some other battering they received from the alien menace. Of course, that sense of being overwhelmed is integral experience, but what makes X-COM great is how the game makes you want to face that.
The real achievement of Enemy Unknown is how it takes a niche and if we’re being honest, dorky turn-based-strategy and makes it cool. X-COM has the style, the verve and the sense of drama of something like Modern Warfare of The Last of Us. The animations, the use of cinematic camera angles, the way it introduces each enemy you encounter like a wrestler strutting to the ring. It has a splendid sense of occasion, and it makes you desperate to fight the good fight, no matter how much you’re going to get the shit kicked out of you along the way.
2013: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
I was very, very tempted to put the Last of Us here. It’s a fantastic game, a dramatic, harrowing, action-packed adventure. But it has one small problem. It doesn’t have pirate ships in it.
Black Flag, on the other hand, definitely has pirate ships in. The fourth Assassin’s Creed (actually the sixth Assassin’s Creed) is a thrilling swashbuckling adventure lets you roam the Caribbean in your own weaponised sailing vessel, exchanging broadsides with British and Spanish cargo ships laden with booty, exploring idyllic Caribbean islands for targets and treasure, braving terrifying storms on the open ocean, or just listening to your crew singing sea shanties as you travel to your next destination.
As well as being more mechanically engaging, Black Flag has an atmosphere and personality to it that later games like Unity and Syndicate lost. Origins and Odyssey have gone a long way to regaining that, although I don’t particularly like their approach to combat and levelling. Black Flag Assassin’s Creed and puts it them into a structure where all its worst elements no longer matter. It remains the best pirate game ever made, and the best Assassin’s Creed game ever made.
2014: Alien: Isolation
Another major trend across the 2010s was the rise of first-person horror, kicked off in 2010 itself by the success Amnesia: The Dark Descent. As with film, horror is an ideal space for indie developers to work in, as it enabling you to do a lot with relatively little.
Yet the high-point of first-person horror came from a mainstream studio, in the form of Creative Assembly’s stunning Alien: Isolation. It’s the first bit of Alien fiction in 35 years to add something of worth to the Alien canon, offering superbly told story that sees Amanda Ripley exploring the space-station Sevastopol in search of her missing mother. It’s an emotive and compelling tale that hits all the right Alien notes, psychotic androids, oppressive corporations, exploited working-class employees, and of course, a giant, terrifying extra-terrestrial monster.
It’s hard to make such a cinematic icon frightening again, but the Creative Assembly succeeded through a combination of incredible audio-visual design and AI that seemed like magic. Isolation lends its Alien a powerful sense of presence. For the first time you can feel the weight of the Xenomorph as it stomps through Sevastopol’s halls, and glean a fist-hand understanding relentless it is, as it stalks you through the ceiling’s ventilation shafts, dropping down at the slightest noise, then hanging around for what seems like hours while you quiver inside a cupboard. Easily the best horror game of the decade.
2015: The Witcher 3
The open-world game has dominated the 2010s. I feel like I’ve spent more time in virtual worlds than the real one. Much as I love games that offer such freedom-of-exploration, it’s rare to find one that truly justifies every moment you spend in it.
The Witcher 3 is one of those games, where every element of its story, questing, and visual design has been pored over with a mind toward how it contributes to the player’s experience. Geralt’s sprawling quest to find his missing adoptive daughter is simultaneously a grand war epic, a personal tale of fatherhood, and just another day at the monster-hunting office. It’s a game made by a developer desperate to prove its credentials, one that has learned and grown and adapted consistently since the wonky but interesting first game, launched in 2007.
What makes the Witcher truly special, is the humanity at its heart. Its world is cruel and violent, populated with men and women who are often worse than the monsters Geralt is hired to kill. But it’s also world that Geralt sees through empathetic eyes, encouraging you to find the humanity in even the most inhumane-seeming individuals, dealing with complex and often traumatic subject matter with grace and consideration. How you decide to act upon that, of course, is entirely up to you.
2016: Dishonored 2
One of the most pleasant surprises of this last ten years was the second generation of the immersive Sim. Seeing games like Deus Ex and Thief given a second shot by Square Enix was heartening to see for this lifelong fan of Ion Storm and Looking Glass, even if the Thief reboot was a bit poo.
The undisputed champion of immersive sims this decade was Arkane Studios, whose two Dishonored games (along with the System Shock successor Prey) helped the genre sneak swiftly into the 21st Century. All three are stunning games, but Dishonored 2 just edges the others in terms of ambition and imagination. It features superbly creative mechanics ever, with systems so deep you’ll be discovering new ways play with your powers and gadgets three or four games in.
At the same time, its levels are legitimately some of the best ever created, featuring gorgeously detailed chunks of the subtropical city of Karnaca for you to explore. And this is before you even get to main events like the ever-shifting walls of the Clockwork Mansion, or the temperamental timelines of A Crack in the Slab. Dishonored II is truly a must-play for anyone remotely interested in games that let you play your own way.
2017: Divinity: Original Sin II
I thought I’d have to wait a decade before an RPG as good as The Witcher 3 came along. Turned out that wait was less than two years. Divinity is a very different beast from the Witcher, an isometric CRPG that much closer in spirit to Baldur’s Gate. But it has that same commitment to detail that made CD Projekt’s masterpiece so special.
It also has more open-ended and creative quests, and arguably more interesting combat. The freedom with which OS2 gives you to approach quests and battles verges on ridiculous. It’s a game that lets you solve mysteries by talking to animals and ghosts, that lets you learn the memories of a dead person by consuming their flesh, that let’s you play as a metamorphizing lizard man, or a skeleton that makes it rain blood. Then you can electrify the blood to kill your enemies, or freeze it to make them fall over. Yes, that right, Original Sin gives you the power of a four-year-old telling a story.
Oh, and it lets you do all of these things either in singleplayer or open-ended co-op, where you can work with your friends, go off on your own, or actively work to undermine their campaigns. It’s the closest any dev has come to replicating the creativity and surprise of Dungeons and Dragons in a virtual RPG.
2018: Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn was by far and away my favourite game of last year. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, but the main one is that it achieves something no other game has managed before it. It’s a detective game that works.
What I mean by this is Obra Dinn requires proper deduction on your behalf to solve its delightfully intricate puzzle, which sees you play an insurance investigator trying to figure out the fates of the 51 crewmembers missing from the ghost-ship Obra Dinn. With a ledger containing basic information about the crew, and a strange pocket-watch that lets you travel back to witness key moments in the ship’s past, you need to put names to the faces of every crew-member aboard, and find out exactly how they died.
Through this, Obra Dinn somehow generates the plot arc of a great detective serial. The spark of joy as a key puzzle-piece slips into place. The frustration of chasing a particular clue around your mind while the answer evades your grasp. The weary satisfaction when you finally have the whole, tragic, picture, and leave the ship as it was when you arrived, empty save for the bones.
And none of that is to mention the game’s fantastic seafaring story, the delightful visuals that mimic eighties’ computer monitor displays, and the superb soundtrack that rings and clangs with carillon bells. Return of the Obra Dinn is as close to perfect as games get.
2019: Disco Elysium
It’s intriguing that the decade should conclude with two fantastic detective games in a row. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps there’s an urgent subconscious imperative to investigate a world-state that seems to be increasingly going wrong. Or perhaps it’s just coincidence and means nothing. Merry Christmas!
Either way, Disco Elysium is a very different beast to Obra Dinn, arguably having more in common with Divinity. It’s small-scale yet astoundingly deep RPG that casts you as detective investigating a murder while struggling with alcohol-induced amnesia, in a dilapidated suburb of an alternate ‘70s city.
What makes Disco so compelling is not so much its detective story (although that is still pretty good). It’s the nuance with which it lets you build a character and interact with the world Studio ZA/UM has created. Your in-game skills are parts of your own mind that are treated as characters in their own right. They’ll talk to you, advise you, and even sometimes mislead you. You could become a Sherlock-like sleuth, highly intelligent but socially inept, a master of emotional psychology, or a thug in a police jacket who solves crimes with his fists.
Disco Elysium couples this complex character creation with some of the smartest, funniest, and most incisive writing we’ve seen in gaming. Meanwhile it’s world that is unlike anything else you’ve experienced in an RPG, offering an alternate history of the twentieth century that simultaneously strange and alien and unnervingly familiar. It’s transcendental.
The Game of the Decade: Minecraft
Whether or not Minecraft counts as having released this decade depends on your interpretation. It initially launched in 2009, but didn’t see an official release until 2011. Regardless, there’s little question over its significance through the last ten years. No matter what you’ve been playing, Minecraft has always been there in the background, lurking like a Creeper just waiting to explode all over your free time.
And the influence Minecraft has had, my goodness. It’s spawned at least two whole new genres that you can clearly identify; creativity-led games like Space Engineers and No Man’s Sky (which these days is basically space Minecraft) and survival games like The Long Dark, The Forest, Miasmata, and Don’t Starve. It’s blocky art-style, created mainly for convenience, has now become an identifiable aesthetic. Minecraft even has its own LEGO sets.
Ultimately, Minecraft’s influence all comes down to the fact that it is and remains a fantastic game. That core loop of digging out a small shelter, exploring a bit, building a slightly more elaborate shelter, exploring a bit more, and so on until you’ve got a castle with electronic doors and an irrigated indoor farm. It’s one of the most satisfying feedback loops going. The crafting system actually has proper processes backed into it, mining still feels really good to do. It’s still one of the best games ever made, and one that is likely to continue its enormous influence through the next ten years.
March 25 2020 | 14:00