The 2010s have come and gone and as always there are a lot of retrospective lists coming out ranking the “best” games, albums, movies, shows, and whatnot of the decade. I figured instead of trying to delineate what games were the “best” of the decade I would point to five games that significantly impacted me as a gamer and person. I will admit some of these games may be on my hypothetical “best” list. This list is in chronological order.
Starcraft II (2010)
It was a hot summer day in 2010, between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college that a group of friends introduced me to Starcraft II. We crowded around two computers in a basement as a friend who had never played the game and I waged virtual war. I lost the game, but was instantly hooked. I bought Starcraft II when it came out and it was on constant rotation throughout my freshman year in college. No game has ever given me the adrenaline rush I still get from playing this game. I love how fast paced it is, how deep the strategy is, and the feeling of victory when you outplay your opponent.
This said, this isn’t on this list just because I was obsessed with it for a year. More important about Starcraft II is that it is the first game I watched more than I played. Starcraft II introduced me to esports, something I find endlessly fascinating and has directed much of my play and watching time this decade. I find competitive games to create such dynamic interactions for players and spectators and their rise to prominence this decade all started for me with a strategy game I’m still watching 10 years later.
Dark Souls (2011)
Dark Souls is one of the most talked about games of the decade and for many created a new trajectory and “kind” of game. You can read all about it in every other end of decade list, but I want to talk about what Dark Souls meant for me. I grew up playing games from a young age. I remember playing Doom with my dad in the 90s and the joy of getting a Gameboy with Pokemon as a young person. One thing I have always loved about games is the feeling of “mastery” over a text, especially the ones that challenged me, but by the early 2010s I was almost exclusively getting this feeling from multiplayer games, not single player ones.
When Dark Souls came along my best friend would not stop talking about how much he loved it, we made fun of him for awhile, but in 2012 I bought it… and I played 400 hours in six months, beating it dozens of times, trying every possible build, and fighting people in online arenas. I love the atmosphere, world building, level construction, enemy design, and role playing elements of Dark Souls, but most importantly, I love that it feels like every decision I make matters. FromSoftware games are must buys for me, and games like Sekiro and Bloodborne which follow a similar formula are some of my favorites of the decade, but Dark Souls kicked a whole style of single player games into another gear and expanded the way I play games. As time goes on, I realize it isn’t the difficulty that makes these games enjoyable, but the excellent approach to satisfying, consequential gameplay that keeps me coming back.
This is another game that has received a lot of attention, and for good reason. For me, Undertale succeeds on an emotional level where the vast majority of games fail. In general, I am someone who does not get into the stories games tell. I am certainly more interested, as much of this list can attest to, in games that are satisfying experiences as games for player who want to use their mind and hands in new ways. But Undertale hit me “right in the feels.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, its simple graphics, the characters feel genuine and real. I wanted to do good by them. Toby Fox, the game’s creator, does such a great job merging game, music, characters, and story together in a coherent way that makes this an enjoyable ride. The moment I beat Undertale I knew I had to play it again with my wife, so I beat it twice in one weekend, and somehow, though I knew all the jokes the second time around, I was even more charmed by this game’s unrelenting positivity and spirit.
The indie games I played before Undertale were mostly of the “roguelike” variety like Binding of Isaac, FTL, or Rogue Legacy, where story is typically in the backseat. But since I’ve been more eager to try out more robust single player experiences like Celeste or Return of the Obra Dinn. These games still have fantastic gameplay, but their narratives move or interest me. I still have trouble identifying with AAA games for the most part, but thanks to Undertale the possibility for indie games to speak to me has increased quite a bit.
The Witness (2016)
In a decade of excellent puzzle games like Talos Principle, Portal 2, and Baba is You, The Witness stands out to me. These games have a penchant for being lonely experiences as the player works through solving puzzles in isolated conditions. The Witness is no different, but where it stands apart to me is in how I didn’t want to leave the desolate island. There were so many moments in the game where I just marveled at the ingenuity of the puzzles. While many games might make one feel clever as they find ways around problems, few games have ever made me feel so smart for just doing what the designer intended. It is so easy to get lost in The Witness as a result of this feeling. It helps that when you get stuck the game is open enough to let you go work through a puzzle on another part of the island, but regardless, The Witness is an painstakingly crafted puzzle game worth all the time and energy you have to put into it.
It is easy to sometimes be cynical about the cyclical nature of games. Every year many come out that only mildly improve on a previous formula. Fads pop up (like Battle Royale or MOBA games) and suddenly every company is moving in the same direction. Games like The Witness remind us that there is so much vast, unexplored territory in games and make me giddy with excitement at future possibilities for this art. Not just for new stories to tell, because there will always be more stories to tell, but for new ways of playing that offer unique perspectives on the world otherwise inaccessible.
Celeste is the last game on this list and the last game I played through in the 2010s. This platforming game is executed incredibly well and feels great to play, with its dash mechanic truly shining. Like Undertale, it’s narrative, characters, and music go a long way toward filling an otherwise unassuming indie game with heart. Celeste is also the first (and only) game I’ve ever speed run. With such precise and satisfying controls it is easy to see why so many people have enjoyed playing this game as quickly as possible: it is rarely frustrating and often rewarding to play.
For me personally, I’ve had a “love/hate” relationship with platforming games for much of my life. The first game I ever really “got into” was Super Mario 64 in my grandma’s basement and I can recall fondly playing Sunshine on my Gamecube growing up, but often I found other titles more rewarding to play. I hated the feeling of making one mistake, falling into a pit, and having to restart a level. In many ways, Celeste has helped wash this feeling away from me. Despite failing many times in my initial run, and even more times as I tried to climb the mountain as quickly as possible, I have persisted to do my best. I feel as though I have grown as a player while playing this title, trusting myself and my ability to overcome difficult, but fair, obstacles, particularly in the platforming genre. While speedrunning month is coming to a close on The Arena, I’m liable to keep trying to lower my time in Celeste, because it is the journey of improvement that drives me, not the goal of finishing.
There is certainly a trajectory and rhythm in this list. Starcraft II engages me on the level of competitive gaming and esports. Dark Souls reflects this admiration for difficulty and encouraged me to take single player gaming seriously. Undertale and The Witness are amazing single player indie games that asked me to consider more than just gameplay. And Celeste, played as an “esport” of sorts, merges the difficulty of competitive play and the joy of a great singe player campaign. I think it is important to understand that just as gaming keeps changing over time, so do we, and to make lists of the “best” titles without considering their impact on us when we play them might do a disservice to the way media change us.
Honorable Mentions: Super Mario Odyssey, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Portal 2, Doom (2016), Smash Ultimate, Hearthstone, Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Journey, Minecraft, Cuphead, FTL.