Image taken from Unpause Asia (Guess which of these two games made it onto my list)
Another decade is about to pass. For many, including myself, it was a troubling one to say the least. The prior decade was no less frustrating in the bad that was allowed to transpire and a good argument could be made that every decade ever has had some truly sore aspects.
How we feel about those eras define them. The 1980s is often well liked, deservedly so for its incredible output of popular culture that lingers to this day, and less so for perhaps everything else including one of the most criminally overrated political administrations in recent history. What I am referring to may change depending on whether you are American or British or possibly doesn’t really apply at all.
For this decade, there were as they often are in this ever busier world breakthroughs and milestones for a whole number of things. It can be harder to perceive the good when our collective outlook is as of this writing very bad.
I speak more for generations younger than not such as my own, though they’re outlying examples, but a real sense of fear and uncertainty has become a defining indication of this decade’s fruits. Bitter fruits they may be.
It’s everything from how we will deal with political corruption, environmental disaster, the power of corporations on just about everything and the possible reevaluation of what someone’s role in life might be as automation becomes a pronounced reality. There is so much to fear and it is not all irrational paranoia. So why not play a video game to relax or at least focus your anxiety somewhere else?
This decade’s best video games( that I have played and completed) define not only the appetites of what gamers, casual or not, craved, but could suggest what to expect in the next ten years. I will still, in a sense, be a young man (not over 40) by the end of 2029.
I hope that this hobby I share with many is still around and evolving in the right direction. In some ways, it may instead require course correction from a frightening and wallet-sucking monetization system that rose to terrible prominence this decade.
In the first part of this three part overview, I will detail ten games I consider the best and most influential I’ve played since 2010. I will include an extra five as honorable mentions due to their unmistakable impact. I must re-emphasize these include games I have played and completed.
If there are other deserving titles that did have an impact and are considered deserving like 2011’s Dark Souls or 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, know that either I have not yet played it or in terms of enjoyment or subjective opinion think that much of them, which will inevitably ruffle some feathers.
Without even more ado, here they are.
10: Resident Evil 2 (REMAKE) (2019)
Image from YouTube (The past and present are as one in 2019)
Shocker, this is a likely spoiler for my choice for game of the year 2019.
Remakes in general are more warmly received as a concept in video gaming than it is in cinema. This likely stems from games being an art form whose output ages much faster than most mediums and is often locked away by being stuck in prior generations of hardware.
When a remake of a game is announced and released, it’s more than a visual upgrade. It’s a modernization and if need be reconsideration of what is needed to make a great if aged title still great and more easily appreciable to younger generations. Watch most films from the prior century and it is not the hardest thing for most people to watch any of them. That is a more difficult challenge even with games that are still arguably good for what they are from the 1990s.
I have played the original Playstation One trilogy of Resident Evils on the PS3. Yes, there is truly a world of difference with the feel and presentation of games then and games now. I still enjoy the originals because I understand what they are and why they were made the way they were.
There is a strange of-its-time charm to the pre-rendered backgrounds and music that makes both the original REs and the era they are part of special to me. It’s almost like the early sound era for the medium, the time in which voice acting was just becoming a new normal.
The long desired remake for Resident Evil 2, originally released in 1998, arrived 21 years later and as promised is both different and the same in the right ways. There are clear cut differences between the two RE2s and most of the alterations work well.
Reception from the old guard of fans and the newer ones like myself both agree that this scary but fun fight for survival against zombies and much worse through a police station, sewers and ultimately an underground lab is a strong enough synthesis of then and now.
It’s a remake full of fanservice to the original like unlocking the original outfits for the four playable characters or via free DLC that includes the original music played during gameplay and as seen above, the original 98′ look. The remake further delights by incorporating new design elements that work well on their own for a survival horror game and offering surprises for veterans of the original.
Consider the tweaked layout of the levels or nature of a puzzle not being the same as it was before. The scares themselves can be different making expectations based on the past not a safeguard from new frights.
So much works in RE2 Remake’s favor of balancing what was then with the now. It follows the similarly acclaimed remake of the first Resident Evil and knowing what should be altered while not alienating those that like the original design.
RE2 Remake is among the decade’s best as it acts as a template for when someone should decide to remake an older property in what should be done: Feed the players of old and the players of today and make the whole thing a structurally sound experience that honors the franchise’s design philosophy.
9: Red Dead Redemption II (2018)
Image from Esquire (The Wild West in its twilight years)
Aside from coloring in answers to questions and backstory for its chronological successor, RDR II asks something bold: do games have to be entertainment first? Not all stories, well told or not, must be “fun” all the time. Sometimes, making something fun can be a detriment to what the piece of media wishes to communicate.
Red Dead Redemption II can indeed be great fun, but it is more about enveloping you in a time and place, in this case being 1899, in a recreation of not just the beginning of the end of the wild west, but also a morally uncertain lifestyle: of the outlaw and why they were unlawful had no one answer.
True, why someone commits a crime or lives a criminal lifestyle is not always because of evil tendencies. Sometimes, circumstance and/or rebellion against a disagreeable status quo are reason, or to another’s eyes, excuse.
Red Dead Redemption II is one of the most beautiful and graphically realized games made yet, let alone of its generation and decade. It’s a near-unbelievable playground that is often punishing, more so than earlier Rockstar titles( the people behind GTA for instance), for letting you go crazy inside it.
It wants you to either to be a noble outlaw with growing second thoughts on the life he’s lived or an unrepentant yet intelligent monster, who due to a harsh circumstance, will be forced to end his life of crime either way.
There is no lack of things to do, though your mileage with a lot of it will vary, perhaps to a greater degree than other open-world games. How you interact with the world can feel both immersive yet trying like with your movement, looting bodies or objects for items, managing your clothes, facial hair, gun and horse.
It’s less a trollish inconvenience and more a steady reminder to remember and master the various systems the game has and to recall the realities of a past way of life.
RDR II, nor its predecessor, are really Westworld. Westworld gives a wild west playground for visitors to live out western fantasies which can run a wide range of options, many of them disturbing. RDR II does allow some virtual re-enactment in a manner similar. And that can be truly awesome.
Its thematic intentions, regarding the weight of consequence, the indifference of time’s passing and that the people you know are perhaps not fully knowable, are lessons that neither the original 70s Westworld movie’s theme park nor the HBO remake’s cared to delve into.
Red Dead Redemption II’s loyalty to its story and characters over the freedom to truly go about exploring and doing missions your way has been highly contentious. I am very accommodating to that aspect of the game and it has in some way, lessened my opinion of what is still my game of the year for 2018. Some story beats, such as a needless excursion to a Cuban island, can be considered flaws in the game’s greatest strength.
Red Dead Redemption II isn’t just about improving gameplay from its predecessor. it’s not about making an ever more lifelike recreation of the world on a disc. It’s about a video game having the unwavering commitment to an epic period tale the likes of Leone and Coppola. It’s success in all these things makes it an unmistakably important achievement for the medium and the decade. You don’t have to “enjoy” it all the time to get why it’s here.
It won’t be the only game here that challenges the “fun first” doctrine of the art form. It certainly helps, but it doesn’t have to be a crutch any more.
8: Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Image from Digital Trends (Once upon a time in the virtual West…)
Red Dead is the only series that gets to have two of its entries appear on the best of the decade list. The only other game, the first back in 2004, is hardly worthy of appearing in the best games for that year.
The Redemption games tell one story with the first the latter half and the second the former. It brings to mind the first two Godfathers even though the second split its time between the past and present.
II involved for the majority of its story Arthur Morgan and his role in the eventual dissolution of the Van der Linde gang. A very extensive epilogue is about one member he helped, should the player wish it, attempting a second chance life with his eventual wife and kid.
At the beginning of this game, John Marston’s family is in government custody and he is forced to go back to the West, closer to its end than ever by 1911 and round up dead or alive his remaining outlaws friends.
Red Dead Redemption in 2010 was like nothing else on the market. Of course, it had the general fixings of a open-world sandbox like Grand Theft Auto, both of the same developer. But it expanded beyond that to encompass an authentic Western feel with the use of breaking and riding horses, quick-draw gun duels with severe consequences and a whole lot else that made it more than just GTA but in the wild west.
2008’s GTA IV was Rockstar’s first self critical reflection of the type of antiheroes they were creating to serve as player avatars in their games. Niko Bellic’s self loathing and uncertainty about the veracity of the American dream he was pursuing was a refreshing change of pace and tone for an experience like Grand Theft Auto.
Two years later, Red Dead Redemption continued that push to make players both like yet feel purposefully apprehensive of the characters they control. John Marston in many respects is a better man than Niko. He has earnestly attempted a better crime-free life and even back in the wilderness has a surprising courtesy and maturity to himself that makes him someone I would feel more comfortable physically being around in comparison to Niko.
More so than its prequel, RDR wants you to enjoy yourself while still having to wrestle with who John is and/or was. You can collect bounties, take down hideouts of bandits, gamble with cards and chips, drink up at the saloon, treasure hunt, pick flowers, hunt wild animals.
Most of that is in II as well, but the weight of its immersive yet cumbersome manner of you doing almost anything makes the first seem more friendly to you and your frontier appetites.
Red Dead Redemption is not just among the best of the decade for being arguably the first truly good simulation of a Western but having the required moxy to tell as good a story as the genre requires, all the more so due to it leaning closer to the “Spaghetti” flavor than not.
Just the loud, brash soundtrack reflecting the subgenre that melts into surprising yet effective use of contemporary, lyrical songs makes the first RDR maybe not the best one but the more important one. The first Toy Story probably isn’t the best one but you get my high plains drift.
7: Doom (2016)
Image from Rock Paper Shotgun (Making Hell hell for demonkind, small and really, really big)
The people behind the shockingly amazing reboot to the oldest first person shooter franchise( that isn’t Wolfenstein) reportedly had one major consideration when bringing the demon slaying action into the modern era: make the act of killing demons stay fun as long as possible. Always keep a certain thirst in the player to renew the cycle of violence by replaying the campaign over and over again.
That same addictive quality is also renowned in the original two DOOM titles from 1993 and 94 respectively. It’s easy to play but a master to finish and perfect. Can you kill all the enemies in every stage? Did you find all the secrets? Did you find it awesome? If all three are met, then a proper DOOM was played.
DOOM 2016, despite the dark, literally satanic imagery is one of the most joyous revelations for the gaming medium in recent years. Not only was DOOM’s philosophy of fast paced shooting and tactically taking out the right enemies at the right time still a workable proposition, I among others would say that the shooter genre has been missing this kind of thoughtful yet excessive style for a long time.
Aside from taking the tenets of DOOM, that of clearing and pushing through level by level against increasingly stronger enemies and successfully adapting it to modern visuals and controls, it also updates the nature of who you are playing in a way that perhaps wasn’t needed but certainly was an appreciated touch.
The Doom Slayer, also known as the Doom Marine and Doom Guy, is the silent yet brutally deadly protagonist of this rebooted DOOM. He could care less about anyone’s opinion of the demons not involving killing every last one of them.
Despite viewing the game entirely from his eyes, the slayer communicates so effectively what he wants and how he gets it. The visceralness of how he kills the hosts of hell whether it be with his guns or his hands is comically absurd yet never not how it should be. When it comes to the doom slayer and you, either you’re all aboard or you’re not.
The black and whiteness of the Slayer’s mission helps bring focus back to what matters more: the detail of the levels, the creative ways you can get around and take out your opponents and a rarely fettered sense that the Doom slayer and you are super special and in this extraordinary circumstance, there is nothing wrong with that.
In the best ways, DOOM 2016 is the right kind of retro experience: never beholden to the past but still reverent of it. I can’t wait to see where the Slayer’s kill-em-all mentality takes us with next year’s DOOM Eternal. Game-wise, the 2020s’ seem off to a good start.
6: Spec Ops: The Line (2012)
Image from Instant Gaming) (Looks beautiful, right? Won’t be when you know what it is.)
When it comes to portrayals of the U.S. military in recent years, especially after the events of 9/11, portraying them in a less than heroic manner has become a rare sight. There was a time when films about America’s sorrowful role in Vietnam were ubiquitous. In both Apocalypse Now and Platoon’s case, it was even a profitable venture.
When producing an American film involving the U.S. military in some capacity, permission and oversight is required from armed forces officials regarding the script and use of vehicles & personnel for production. There is nothing saying that an anti-war and/or film critical of the U.S. military can’t be made, it’s just the lack of resources and funding from the Pentagon makes it incredibly unlikely.
With that in mind, I think a film version of Spec Ops the Line would be possible if not for the financial incentive to avoid pissing off that same military benefactor. While written by an American, The Line was produced by a German developer, Yager. For a lot of good reasons, this game is not very nice to the state of the modern American military.
It’s not just America’s use of its military on a global scale that the Line is critical of, it’s more about critiquing the military genre, first and third person shooters set within contemporary conflict.
Warfare is a touchy subject if treated seriously, and the Line posits that most games, like your average Call of Duty and Battlefield, are not nearly as serious as they should be when considering the dire ramifications of modern warfare and those that practice it.
Inspired by both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the Line places you in the sand filled boots of Captain Martin Walker, leading a three men scouting team through the Arabian desert.
A terrible city-destroying sandstorm has wrecked Dubai and a veteran military battalion led by a highly decorated Col. Conrad sent themselves in to aid the many Emirate citizens stuck in the disaster zone. Your mission is to make contact with his 33rd battalion and once that’s been done, report back.
To reference another book that deals with conflict of some sort in Africa, things fall apart. Walker does not decide to head back once contact has been made, hostile though it may have been, with the denizens of Dubai. His curiosity to dig deeper gradually devolves into an unsanctioned vendetta against the supposedly rogue Colonel.
Walker and his team start piling up bodies, mostly American, in their search for answers and eventually revenge. One unforgettable and line crossing use of white phosphorous is when the game goes from a somewhat generic tactical shooter into a unique and very sad horror story.
In the end, the best ending if it can be called that, is accepting that you, Walker, are the true villain. For war crimes that could only be prevented from some advice the game gives you early on: stop. Stop playing this game.
Spec Ops the Line is among the decade’s best for me much more for its strong political and ethical sentiment than for anything involving gameplay innovation. Its clever visual tactics of presenting Walker’s growing delusion and lack of sanity from a terrible potpourri of symptoms involving heat and lack of water & food makes it harder for him to not so much see right from wrong, but easier to pin the blame anywhere else.
The glory in Spec Ops: the Line doesn’t come from satisfying gameplay but thoughtful and eventual realization of the true nature of what you’re experiencing. The game, like a mirage, lures you into familiar comforts involving a gung-ho, patriotic military shooter and then before you know it, you’re stuck in a situation that rightfully makes you unhappy for all the right reasons.
I’m not sure if this is an official element for anything called an art form, but Spec Ops the Line is a clear cut, memorable example of a self-critical video game. It’s not always about having fun, this game tells you. If you are, then maybe you’re part of the problem. The game also says, in another interpretation not to worry. You didn’t really kill all those innocent people. It’s just a game, after all.
Games don’t make people kill real people, but they can reinforce worldviews, intentional or not. Spec Ops asks you what the worldview is for all those super successful and super patriotic military titles. What is the medium’s message? Like your time with Captain Walker, you may not like the answers you find.
End of Part One
Before I reveal my top five games of the decade, five very honorable mentions.