5. Portal 2 (2011)
Image from PC Gamer (Wheatley, the most lovable British doofus robot since C-3PO)
Before its April 2011 release, most people didn’t expect a sequel to Portal, a short but incredibly sweet first person puzzle game involving tests with ,well, portals to be as good if not better than the original. It also managed to be longer without feeling overly padded, funnier, had great celebrity voice-work from the likes of Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons and an emotional, perfect conclusion to the story of mute female guinea pig survivor Chell.
Portal 2 did more than up the mental and physical challenges of trials that involved the now iconic Portal Gun you wield. It upped the stakes, the surprises that came from the devil you knew like the ruthless, deadpan AI that runs Aperture Laboratories, GlaDos, and a devil you accidentally create in an attempt to finally escape the underground lab she traps you in.
The game may be getting close to a decade old but a mid-game twist manages to be both shocking, sad and even comic due to the circumstances regarding it.
More so than its predecessor, Portal 2 is deft at combining the string of tests and obstacles the use of portals solve with a clear cut narrative that feels both more obviously plotted yet still very subtle in the right ways, such as the player directed uncovering of Aperture’s past and secrets.
Portal 2 is an excellent way to get those not necessarily inclined towards puzzle focused games to dive into that genre. It’s also a real-deal dramedy, with some truly hilarious humor that is also as pitch black as an E for everyone ten and up game can allow.
Playing Portal 2 by yourself is a wonderful experience that both satisfies the brain and the heart’s desire. It’s just as great with a friend or stranger. The game also includes a co-op mode where two players local and online control two hapless robots that are forced by GlaDos to perform new even more challenging portal tests only winnable with two participants.
It rose the bar for the puzzle and adventure genres. It’s imagination and style stands alone nine years later. It’s incredibly catchy techno soundtrack and great new selection of lyrical music, including an outstanding track from The National, make it a musical masterpiece as well. For games that challenge your intelligence but also relieve you through laughter, Portal 2 is a peerless example from the last decade
4. Persona 5 (2016, Japan,2017, International)
Image from the Jakarta Post (Few games make becoming a weeb so enticing for the layman…)
Thanks to watching a playthrough of Persona 4 prior to the North American release of 5, I was curious enough to play the newest addition to what is quickly becoming the most popular Japanese Role Playing Game series out there. It is safe to say my curiosity to try for myself paid off immensely.
Persona 5 is a visual and auditory masterpiece, to say nothing of the characters, writing, narrative and deeply relevant themes. It does not matter if you are or are not from Japan, what Persona 5 expresses ideologically, is resistance against a dangerous status quo.
It’s not just that Persona 5’s political and philosophical ideas are sound and fascinating to ponder on, it’s that the gameplay experience feels so unique to its own franchise, an experience that began with 2006’s Persona 3, was improved upon with 2008’s Persona 4 and has been all but mastered with 5. What is the core gameplay loop?In short, it is a battle against time.
In this iteration of Persona, you play a Japanese teen forced to live on probation with a grumpy cafe owner in urban Tokyo after being framed for a crime that a dirty politician committed. This random and painful injustice from the supposedly pure institutions of his country causes a desire for rebellion to stir within our young hero.
He is given a supernatural chance when, in his supposed dreams, a mysterious figure residing in a metaphysical reality called “the Velvet Room” unlocks his inner potential. That potential which he must choose himself to unleash is the titular “persona.”
Since the third game, the series and its character’s relations with their personas have reflecting an overarching theme. The third game was about death and overcoming the existential fear of its inevitability or worse a perverse desire for it without appreciating life.
The fourth game was about self-actualization, perceiving both the truth of who we are internally and being true to it as well as ascertaining what is even true in the modern world, a question that is very contested in contemporary Japan.
The fifth game is about rebellion and revolution against an unsatisfactory and authoritarian status quo, to differentiate the right and wrong kinds of freedoms a human beings should use. The protagonist, which as series tradition dictates you yourself name, gradually bring together a group of like-minded and similarly socially abused and manipulated teens to form the Phantom Thieves.
Their metaphysical appearances cleverly take the form of both real and fictional tricksters like Arsene Lupin, Zorro, Goemon, and Robin Hood. When the law is lawless, who do you turn to? Through metaphysical abilities their unlocked personas possess, they can enter “cognitive” worlds based around the theory surrounding the “collective unconscious”.
There, they enter fantastically realized areas called “palaces” which represent an individual’s distorted, selfish desires. Like a charming Danny Ocean heist, they infiltrate the palace and search for an item to steal representing where their ill-gotten desires come from. Once stolen, the person they cognitively snuck into will have a change of heart and become a better, repentant person in the real world.
This sounds complicated, because it is, but it really does come together as the story progresses. It isn’t a needlessly complicated Japanese video game tale like something from either Metal Gear Solid or more aggravatingly, Kingdom Hearts. Persona is the prime example of why complex is not the same as complicated or confusing.
I mentioned that the latter day Personas, starting with 3 are really about a battle against time. Despite everything else I mentioned about what Persona 5 is about, that is still very much true. It is arguably the most relatable aspect of the series as well, as we all fight the same battle.
Starting in April of an unspecified year, the protagonist/player has most of a year to both live out their lives as a heroic phantom thief while also living out comparatively banal things like attending school, making friends and hanging out with them, getting a part time job, doing something fun like seeing a movie, playing a game, reading a book, etc.
How well you perform in the end isn’t just how much experience you earn from fighting enemies in the cognitive world alongside your party. It’s how well you improve your social stats like upping charm, intelligence, courtesy and other social aspects from the above activities.
Nothing you do in either world is pointless. It all matters in the long run and the stress from allotting the right amount of time for such things is where the battle can reach a feverish pitch. This is mostly strongly felt in the emotional gameplay core that is the “confidants”. When when you befriend or ally with someone, a supernatural bond is formed with them.
For party members, this improves how they perform in combat to special moves that could very well save your life and the battle in your favor to unlocking a second, more powerful version of their persona. To non-party members, taking the precious time to hang out and help them also unlocks interesting and even vital bonuses to how you proceed as a phantom thief.
It’s possible to max out all your confidants but very unlikely in a single playthrough. It is a blunt reminder to mind what you are doing and why you are doing it at all times.
There is so much else to what makes Persona 5 a modern masterpiece. I could delve into how the turn based combat system is so lively and full of variables that even the act of grinding( in that you return to areas you’ve already explored to fight returning enemies) is not as tedious as other games in its genre. That is a small miracle in itself.
I could also delve into the series tradition of taking personas you collect through combat and fuse them together to create newer stronger ones, in a more thematically mature version of Pokemon. But so much of what Persona 5 is, like the best experiences, saved for actually experiencing it firsthand.
Regardless of your background, including your opinion of anime, the committed will find it hard to fault the game for stealing some aspect of their heart. These are the romantic thieves after all, not the Wet Bandits.
3. Undertale (2015)
Image from Undertale Wiki (Frisk and his/her many friends…or victims in another’s playthrough.)
Undertale is an independently made title and the only one that made it onto this list or consideration for that matter. In my eyes, it far surpasses most triple-A or mainstream released titles out there in terms of ambition, quality and the success in achieving both.
Undertale is more than a retro throwback to the charming 16 bit graphical era of the late to mid 1990s. It is a surprising morality play for the gaming medium. The difference here from most morality plays is that the outcome is not set in stone. Undertale takes the multiple choice paths games can create to an extreme and thought provoking level few have managed.
Undertale is not so much about the ability to do good or bad things in a video game, but why players do it. Is it for how much we do or do not care for the world and characters we interact with? Is it to see the differing results of the choice of going good, evil or a mixture of both? Do we just want to see what happens, damn our moral considerations?
Undertale is a self-aware game on a fourth wall breaking level. It’s not just keenly, playfully aware of the nearly four decades of game design tropes that have been created and cultivated, it’s about its understanding of the player’s connection and expectation with them.
Spoilers to some degree have to be mentioned in this entry for best games of the decade, otherwise my discussion of why it made it here, to the third best, is limited. Undertale gives you three general options with different varying flavors.
You have the heartwarming and arguably( emphasis on arguably) canon “Pacifist run” where you, controlling gender unspecific protagonist Frisk, go out of your way to avoid harming the enemies you face as you journey through a beautifully realized underground world full of the most lovable denizens you can think of.
The game makes it very easy to feel bad about even hurting them as even the more aggressive opponents you face don’t really have any ill intent aside from defensively fighting an intruder to their lands. You are given the ability to dodge your opponents’ attacks and find a way to help or make friends with them, resulting in no one dying and everyone getting along.
The middle ground of the “neutral run” has you only killing your opponents who confront you and get in your way. Following the ingrained from countless earlier RPG games philosophy that “thou must vanquish your foe”, you fight and kill the enemy you face and if possible, spare and even befriend. You will receive a conclusion that isn’t, a fake ending where the only solution is to start over.
You may notice a lot of its denizens, including fan favorite blue-eyed skeleton brother Sans, has a considerable case of deja vu. This clues in to the game always remembering that you have played it once before and unless you completely and utterly uninstall it from your hard drive or memory, it will never not remember. This is especially important when it comes to the third option: kill everyone.
The fan-coined “Genocide Run” is the style of play that has made Undertale an unforgettable classic. In this run, Frisk/player has to systematically hunt down and kill every last denizen of the underworld. Major character, minor character, enemy type, someone equivalent to an extra, they have got to go. In an insidious extra touch, who you control in the game also changes from Frisk to someone horrifyingly sinister.
To wrap up this discussion of the “run” system Undertale has going for it, say that out of curiosity or maybe even penance for the virtual misdeeds you committed, you decided to do a new game after completing a genocide one. You do a perfect or nearly so pacifist run, you beat,peacefully, the true baddie of the game and get the gloriously beautiful and fulfilling real ending of Undertale. The player has redeemed himself.
Well, at the very end of this “redemption” run, the game reminds you all so suddenly and vividly that NOTHING has been forgotten, nor will it be forgiven. Now that’s meta-commentary.
Undertale, more than its wonderfully realized setting, characters, soundtrack(which is among the best I’ve ever heard), combat/non-combat system and impeccable sense of humor and tone interplay, is about accountability in a way no other game, save maybe for Spec Ops The Line, has for its player.
In most games, playing good and bad runs of the same game is just that. You see for curiosity or 100 percenting the experience how to be good and bad. It also shows you finally a mechanically enjoyable way to not kill or knock out those that get in your way.
Undertale suggests that maybe there is something less than benign with a person that would, whether it be for curiosity or for fun, slaughter a whole bunch of lovable, benevolent people without consequence.
Yes, you can uninstall and wipe your saved games to start a fresh new Undertale adventure free of your atrocities if committed.
2. The Last of Us (2013)
Image from Pocket-lint (The journey of these two is the most fun you’ll ever have being hunted by monsters real and metaphorical, scarred by trauma, world weary and uncertain of the validity of moral truths. No, really.)
The PlayStation 3 had one of the most infamously rocky launches for a gaming console. The details of why are not important for this article. What is important is that it’s concluding years had one of the industries’ all time important accomplishments. This is a “stick the landing” moment if ever there was one.
The 2010s’ will be remembered, if not already, for the rise in commercial success of the post-apocalyptic genre, more specifically the “zombie/infected abomination” subgenre.
The phenomenon that was The Walking Dead, mostly in the form of its once acclaimed television series, was a major cause of its infestation, if you will, into popular culture. Telltale Studio’s Walking Dead point and click adventure series was also a factor, not to mention the pr-existing graphic novel of similar acclaim that finished its run in 2019.
If there was any one property of that period that I would name as the best of that genre to come out, it would be Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
That it was as good as it was came as a surprise to me. While they had already achieved super-stardom for the PlayStation with the Indiana Jones inspired Uncharted series with the first three entries, I was not expecting such a deftly crafted story and gameplay experience from them of all studios.
I like, in some cases, love the Uncharted series as much as the next person. But I was never the biggest fan of the characterization and writing for that series. It wasn’t bad but never as exceptional as it was often lauded for. It wasn’t until perhaps Uncharted 4, three years after TLOU, that I could really feel that series’ level of storytelling had truly matured.
Then again, Uncharted is a spectacle, globe trotting treasure hunt sort of affair. It is purposely not as serious as The Last of Us. What shocked me was how consistent Naughty Dog’s narrative and gameplay marriage of ideas and execution was in comparison to the crazy adventures of one Nathan Drake.
The Uncharted games, like many which involve an insanely high body count from the protagonist, was criticized for that very reason. Nathan Drake is a flippant, easy going yet determined when he has to be treasure hunter who cracks a joke while offing a conga line of henchmen in the way. His demeanor compared to his lethal actions has been called “ludonarrative dissonance”.
The behavior and actions of the player and protagonist conflicts with their personality and ethical traits. Drake’s apparent enjoyment and at worst annoyance over how many he has to kill on his adventures has made him appear psychotic or sociopathic. Of course, Nathan does care for other people in his life. He even loves them and would be willing to die for them.
The series does come to question his career path and motivations for his lifestyle by the fourth game in a manner not dissimilar to the critique of Indy in The Last Crusade. That being said, Dr. Jones’ body-count pales in comparison to Drake and friends, though that is more a result of format( 2-hour movie vs multiple hour if longer video game).
How does this tie into The Last of Us, the second best game of the decade? Well, you also kill a lot of people in a single run of the game. In most cases, likely over a hundred human,uninfected enemies will fall by playable survivor protagonists Joel and Ellie. More concerning considering there are far, far fewer people living in their world than in Nathan Drake’s.
What distinguishes Naughty Dog’s tone to violence here compared to Uncharted isn’t just because of how killing is presented, it is why. There are several scenarios throughout Joel and Ellie’s cross-country journey for possibly world-saving answers where the option is presented for the two to go around their foes rather than through them.
Sometimes, letting the infected, known as the “clickers”, named after the disturbing telltale sound they make, have their human obstacles instead is preferable and pragmatic. Then again, killing their way may be the only choice and/or the pragmatic one.
The Last of Us doesn’t just stand out for it’s painstaking desire to tell as good and emotional story between grizzled, cynical survivor Joel and gradual surrogate daughter Ellie as is possible on a interactive platform. It’s how and why it told the story it did that made it standout from most stories being told at the time, regardless of genre.
Again, I don’t want to spoil this game’s narrative as it is truly rewarding despite now being seven years old by this writing. How the game begins, with one of the most heartbreaking openings ever, more for its heart-rending execution than concept to a conclusion that makes you seriously question and reflect on the entire journey is part of the magic.
I’ve selected games on this list in both official rankings and honorable mentions that have examined the morality of the player in relation to the morality of what you are allowed to do or have to do to complete it. The Last of Us does have some on the spot morality choices, but the big one at the end is non-negotiable. No matter your misgivings or even disgust at what will transpire, it must be done.
The difference of it’s morally uncertain if not bad thing you will do compared to Spec Ops the Line is that the latter admonishes you for having partaken in it, not having the courage to stop playing.
The Last of Us’ philosophy is not of directly calling you out but merely for letting you take the reins of complicated people and their complicated, perhaps evil acts. It is not judging you. It lets you judge who you control instead and make up your own mind.
This isn’t just relegated to the bombshell that is the ending, probably among the best done period. It relates to how you feel about Joel and Ellie as you guide them on a visually gorgeous tour of post-ruin America. Admiring how strangely beautiful, almost preferable it may seem to the one of the real world while still recoiling at the brutal violence you both direct at others and against yourself.
The Last of Us excels at satisfying survival based gameplay but more as a result of it living up to the demands and expectations of staying congruent with the realities of this doomed world. It excels at piquing both curiosity and dread at uncovering the full picture of the lives lost and lives more or less living. It makes you both welcome this world and revile it.
The Last of Us has its cake and eats it too. If the same is said of the coming sequel this May, then we are in for a true miracle of a series, having not just one but two outstanding contributions to virtually recreating the harsh side of the human condition, from the safety of our TV monitors.
1. Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Image from Pixers (Commander Shepard’s badass suicide squad, minus two of the DLC characters, sadly)
Mass Effect 2 wins game of the decade mostly easy. It is one of the best games I have ever played, let alone a personal favorite. A middle child of a beloved trilogy that has the most to offer, the most to enjoy and the most to express.
I will do this deserving entry a favor and try not to mention Mass Effect 3, as great a game as it still is, if only because this is supposed to be a positive list of games, where the shortcomings are not the focus because well, obviously. Even a non-gamer should be vaguely aware of why ME3 is such a..complicated little game.
I say that, but does the game of the decade and one of my favorites have problems? Yes, they do. There is an annoying “mining” mission involving using probes from your ship to scan for needed mineral resources that are vital for proceeding forward. The game, when including the mostly excellent DLC additions, can feel the most bloated of the trilogy.
That is because for Commander Shepard’s second of three chapters in the original Mass Effect Trilogy, your mission is to recruit a team from across the Milky Way Galaxy for the purpose of going through a highly dangerous passage through space few have ever survived and once there destroy the homeworld of an entirely malevolent insect-like species that is directly aiding the trilogy’s main antagonists: the Reapers.
Having to search for up to ten party members(including DLC) to be part of your team is the main focus as is also prepping your equipment, your new ship as well as taking the precious time to help those same team members resolve personal issues that could distract from focusing on the dire task at hand.
This recruitment drive/ elaborate crew counseling focus for the game also serves as a clever way to further open up the universe Bioware started with 2007’s original Mass Effect. More planets, more characters, more lore, more stories, more fun, more potential romance options. Tee hee.
It also best demonstrates the unique feature of what Bioware was going for with their planned trilogy. Assuming you kept and you most certainly should, your saved data from ME1, it could be seamlessly transported onto ME2. Every decision Shepard and the player made was then continued with some manner of consequence big and small.
This could range from a past party member’s survival, to who now leads an entire government to how a certain individual or group views you. Then, what you did in this game could be transported to ME3, with a very wide range of debate on how well that all worked out in the end.
Mass Effect 2 is amazing on its own. It is a legendary, little quite like it accomplishment when you put the whole trilogy together. It creates a needed sense of continuity with characters you know and make connections with from beyond the expanse of just one game.
Mass Effect 2 also served as something of a small revelation to me. It showed me how far storytelling could be taken in a video game, much further than had been previously considered. Even with a prior Mass Effect already out.
You could form surprising not always set in stone relationships with a host of different characters. As the now famous ending act suicide mission proved, your own measure of success as a player was also not certain.
A game fully expected me to mind what I did and how I did it, not just reward me because I’m the player and I’m instantly a special cupcake. Like Commander Shepard in-universe, you have to earn the right to become a badass. You could if you really weren’t careful complete the game by outright getting your entire team killed, yourself included.
Mass Effect 2 raised the stakes on what is expected from games when it comes to storytelling. While I also lauded The Last of Us for more or less the same thing, Mass Effect 2 stands out for having much more spinning plates to manage with diverging choices out the wazoo.
The Last of Us is a narratively set in stone masterpiece. Mass Effect 2 is a narratively not set in stone masterpiece with so many different ways to play and push the story you want for Shepard forward. And not just in who Shepard wants to fall in love or have a fling with, if any at all.
Bioshock, all the way back in 2007, is another one of my personal favorites that also opened the door for me in recognizing games as an artistic artform and apt storyteller. Needless to say it would be on my games of the decade list for its era. One major piece of advice is given by the game’s objectivist antagonist, Andrew Ryan( see what they did there?)
“We all make choices,but in the end, our choices make us.”
Mass Effect 2, out of all the games in its series and in comparison to most games in general, takes that piece of advice and runs with it, with some admittedly small restriction. In an interactive medium like video games, which are not as constricted by design like cinema, television, or literature, why not let the participant decide what comes next to the story?
Mass Effect 2, by its very title, was not the first game to posit that and successfully live up to it. But it remains one of the best and most enjoyable acolytes for it.
So ends the 10s’ decade. If we live to see the end of this one, I can only hope as much greatness is played and talked about as the one that has passed us by.