This list went through countless revisions and reshuffling. I struggled with determining, “what are the most notable games of this decade?” I questioned if I should choose games that created new genres, refined a formula to its essentials, or games that created a strong emotional connection. I decided to go with the latter.
These games all punctuate specific points of my life, and I find myself wishing that I could play them again for the first time. They either challenged my expectations, forced me to face something about myself, or created a space that I could call home. It’s saccharine and sentimental, but I can’t find any other way to decide what games meant more to me.
When I look back at 2010 through 2019, the central theme was learning to roll with the punches. This decade is when I transitioned, graduated from college, moved across the country, got engaged, lost a parent, and cried a lot. It was hellish and amazing, and I’m scared of what happens next.
10. Civilization V
Civilization V (Civ V) was so close to not making this list. I have put more than 200 hours into Civ V, and there are parts of the game that I still don’t understand. I tried to read the wiki and get my mind around the complexities of managing my many cities, who each have economies and needs, while also balancing my society’s technological progress. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare.
Civ V made the 4x genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) accessible to a mass audience. Not even its sequel could usurp Civ V’s place as the king of the genre. This game has staying power because of how it ramps up its complexity. All players start building their first settlement and choosing from a handful of technologies. Most people will then begin developing the area around their settlement and research a basic technology, like horse domestication or mining. A few players may choose to start building Wonders, which have wide-ranging effects like free technology or more culture. Other players may want to militarize and start expanding their borders. Others may decide to start trading with their partners or specialize in creating great works of art. The decision tree that players can follow is massive, and no two games are the same.
Finally, there are the expansions, DLC, and mods. Civilization V has two massive expansion packs (Gods & Kings and Brave New World) and 14 DLC packs. There are 9,409 mods on the Steam workshop as of this writing. There is so much extra content, and a lot of it is good. You can even play as the characters from My Little Pony. I know that it’s a gamer sin to cheer on expansions and DLC, but I’m happy this game received so much support. Steam sales often bring the collection down to $5.
I cannot stop playing this game. It is my warm blanket of nuclear destruction and city-state subjugation. I love setting up a giant map with 22 opponents set on easy and crushing them. Sometimes, I befriend them, and we go to space or whatever. But I mostly like crushing them.
I played Undertale later than most people I know. I had already seen the memes of skeleton dudes, heard the music, and decided that it wasn’t for me. I never played Earthbound, which seemed like the energy this game was channeling. It wasn’t until a family member asked me if I played Undertale that I gave it a shot over the Christmas break. I was enthralled. I didn’t talk to my family that break but instead sat on my laptop trying to get past the killer robot with a variety show. I felt terrible when I killed my adoptive dog mom because she wouldn’t let me go through a door. Then the game laughed in my face for trying to save scum the encounter.
Undertale is a game all about subverting expectations and making you care about a strange cast of characters. The more that I say about how the story of Undertale unfolds, the less interesting it will be
Because of this paradox, I want to talk about W.D. Gaster. Gaster is a scientist that is not referenced in the main story, but he was responsible for unspeakable atrocities that appear in the game. Players can only learn about Gaster if they meet one of three randomly spawned Non-player characters (NPCs) that appear based on a hidden value that is determined at the start of the game. Players may also be able to find out more about Gaster by examining the game’s files and using the developer tools to travel between rooms. Gaster has a secret song, a possible character sprite, and a cryptic message written in Wingdings.
Gaster is a creepypasta made manifest in the periphery of this game. You can appreciate the story of Undertale without knowing anything about W.D. Gaster. I hope that I have been able to pitch you on the mysteries hidden within Undertale.
I turn 30 in less than a month, and there is something cosmically horrific about realizing that my young adulthood is almost over. This cosmic horror caused me to look back five years to when I thought it was time to put away childish things like video games and focus on more erudite hobbies, like chess or reading books or eating fine cheese and knowing what exactly tannins are. I didn’t buy the latest consoles. I was ready to be a “real” adult.
Then my roommate let me play Destiny on her PlayStation 4. I felt this rush of Halo nostalgia come over me. Destiny felt great to play, and there was loot to try on. I could dress up my space wizard in ornate robes with a headdress that looked like a deer skull. I became obsessed with doing bounties and taking on strikes.
The story of the first Destiny is nonsensical, but I didn’t care because it felt so good to play. I got to team up with other guardians in this weird world that had robots full of milk and space dragons.
It was the first Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) to get its hooks into me. I got lost in raising my light levels and completing obscure quests. I remember being so proud of taking down Oryx and getting his sword as my own. I loved getting the strike specific armor that makes you look like one of the bosses (bring this back Bungie!).
Destiny 2 refined everything in the original Destiny, but I’ve fallen off it much more quickly. The new expansions and season system seems cool, but I get so tired when I imagine myself getting back on the grind treadmill.
Destiny put my life back on a collision course with video games. I would not be here writing about my games of the decade without having played Destiny. That being said, I’m still not sure what tannins are.
7. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Skyrim) is a game that I’ve felt come in and out of my life many times over the last decade. I played a little of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but the generic aesthetic never spoke to me. The announcement trailer that showed a Dragonborn using his “FUS-RO-DAH” to fight a dragon on the side of a frozen mountain all while the chanting monks played in the background made me want to explore the land of Skyrim (I watched the trailer again while writing this, literally chills).
My first experience was getting the game in college and pouring hundreds of hours into the Xbox 360 version. Looking back, that version of the game is deeply flawed, with long load times and a multitude of glitches. Nevertheless, I played the hell out of it. I remember gawking in awe at the butterflies around Whiterun and being taken aback by how big the game felt. I beat the main story and faction quests but then put the game down.
I came back to Skyrim on the PC years later and realized how much better life could be. The load times were fast, the mods offered massive quality of life changes, and the console commands let me create whatever character I wanted. This time with Skyrim was my experimental period with the game. I started tens of characters and played with a variety of mods. It was fun, but I drifted away from it and played new releases.
The latest stage of my relationship with Skyrim involves the PSVR and Nintendo Switch. Playing the Switch version involved me making a spreadsheet to document everything in the game. I didn’t want to beat Skyrim; I wanted to finish Skyrim completely. I did learn so much about the game; did you know there is a weird light orb in a dwarven ruin called Kagrenzel that, if touched, will trap you and drop you down a pit?
Trying to learn everything about Skyrim showed me that the game is both much bigger and smaller than I thought. Sure, there is a lot of content, but it doesn’t go on forever. This in-depth documentation broke the illusion of this ever-expansive world. It was a bummer.
The PSVR version of the game gave me back a little of the magic of looking at the butterflies. It also helps that my motion sickness is so bad that I have to move very slowly in the world.
I have a complicated relationship with Hearthstone that I’ve documented in another blog post. The game has an abusive monetization strategy, addictive free-to-play trappings, and the developers have a kowtowed to repressive governments. Hearthstone is also one of the purest examples of complex design and player choice ever created. Over the last five years, the Hearthstone has released 13 expansions that each add many new cards to the game. It has also gone through more than 100 balance patches and popularized the digital card game genre around the world. Valve, Riot, CD Projekt Red, Bethesda, and countless other studios are still trying to chase the cash cow that Blizzard made.
Hearthstone is a platform comparable to League of Legends and Fortnite, with different game modes, metas, and competitive scenes. There is a subculture on YouTube, Twitch, and Reddit that uses complex tools to create competitive decks. Hearthstone is, in the words of Randy Pitchford, a “hobby grade” game.
I became part of this subculture on accident and loved how much analysis goes into the game. I feel a kinship to those nerds who would talk endlessly about their love of DotA 2 or League of Legends. I have become that nerd who annoys my partner by talking about the latest balance patches and upcoming sets.
2019 has been a big year for Hearthstone. I would guess that the Blitzchung situation and competition from Magic the Gathering: Arena has led to these changes. The last year of expansions has added an overarching story, and the newest set is overpowered and ridiculous. If you are at all interested in Hearthstone, the best time to start playing was five years ago. The next best time is now.
5. Animal Crossing: New Leaf/Stardew Valley
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (New Leaf) and Stardew Valley both occupy the same place in my brain, which is why they both live on the same spot on the list. I play these games when I need a moment to heal. I picked up New Leaf when I was working at a job that I hated and wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life. Being able to organize a little home and say hi to my friend was what I needed to keep my sanity.
I’ve played Stardew Valley off and for a few years, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I fell hard for it. There were some incredibly hard times this year, and all I wanted was something that felt safe and comfortable. Something that didn’t demand a lot of thinking, but instead let me take comfort in repetition. Stardew Valley was the game I needed when I could not bear to think about anything else.
Both of these games are deceptively complex life-management simulations that let me feel okay when it felt like everything was falling apart. They were places where I could hang out with those that I love and exist in the same space for a little while. There is no fail state in these worlds; your only goal is to be present.
When life gets too hard to bear, I know that my friends K.K. Slider, Blathers, and Mr. Resetti will be there to let me chill.
4. Nier: Automata
Brawlers like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta aren’t known for being introspective art pieces that meditate on the meaning of being human. Those two examples are loud and obnoxious beat-em-ups that revel in being “low-culture.” Nier: Automata builds on these earlier works by giving us a treatise on why we should continue to exist even if the world has no meaning. This message is delivered by a sexy anime robot in a maid costume who wields a katana. It is a silly game.
The game’s combat system doesn’t play super well compared to its contemporaries. The game’s world is a bunch of low-resolution textures with a bland art direction. I also died in the opening section of the game before I could save, which made me put it down and
This game was created with a shoestring budget when compared to its Square Enix-published contemporaries. That low budget let director Yoko Taro and his team make something so beautifully weird that I cannot help but love it.
One of the first lines in the game is, “I often think about the God who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle [life]…and wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to kill him.” The story goes buck wild from there. The player sees snippets of the alien robots learning what it means to have a culture and to live in a society. Like a Greek tragedy, there is no happy ending for anyone beyond the player who bears witness to these bizarre morality plays.
The game’s story shifts over many playthroughs, as we see the perspective of floating pods that have gained sentience and aliens that can barely walk. The 26 different endings reinforce and change the context of each beat in the story. It all culminates in Ending E, which is set to an evolving rendition of the game’s central musical theme. It’s not just the end song that is good; the entire soundtrack is full of bangers.
Nier: Automata is a dense allegorical work told through the framework of an over-the-top, anime-inspired action game. The meaning of this game will be debated and analyzed for the next decade. All I can say is, please get through all the endings. It will be worth it.
3. Gone Home
I will admit that Gone Home is the right game at the right time kind of situation. I played this game shortly after coming out as queer and trans, I grew up in the 1990s, and have a gay sister. I am the target audience for this game.
Now that my biases are out in the open, I still believe that Gone Home is one of the best examples of a “walking simulator” out there. It is a subtle game that plays with your expectations and tells a genuine story about a queer person growing up in the 90s. You never meet another person in the game, but the small remnants of their life that you find around the house paint a clear picture of who they are.
I do need to say that I can’t handle the stress of horror games. Gone Home sets up the player to expect horrific scenes and jump scares. But, it never scares the player. This space that seemed so creepy becomes comfortable and welcoming. The shift from threatening to cozy is so subtle that I didn’t even notice it until I was walking around the threatening basement looking for clues without panic sweats.
This game was something I shared with my partner as soon as we started dating. It was an emotional and sappy journey for both of us that ended in happy sobbing. I don’t think I’ve had that experience with another game, which is the best compliment I can give Gone Home.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I didn’t finish The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time until 2019. My first Zelda game was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and I thought it was okay but not life-changing. I liked Zelda games well-enough, but I didn’t understand the fanaticism around these games. Playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW) felt like opening my eyes and seeing why other people loved this series.
BotW is an open-world adventure game, like Skyrim, that lets you climb mountains and explore to your heart’s content. Unlike Skyrim, BotW has been fine-tuned into a game that feels fun to live in without the open-world “Bethesda-jank.” The paraglider that Link uses to traverse the world is something that every other open-world game should steal and use forever. It is a pure act of joy to move around and take in the world.
Everything about this game feels like the perfect version of what came before it. The combat is challenging and asks the player to stay engaged. The world is beautiful, and the art direction reminds me of a Studio Ghibli movie. The music is phenomenal and understated. This game is an adventure, pure and simple. You can fight the final boss if you want, or you can explore and power up. Or you can go to Hateno Village and chill. There aren’t that many rules or things holding you back except your skill and ingenuity.
The game has a few minor issues, like climbing in rain or weapons breaking. But, those small problems pale when compared to everything else BotW has to offer. I beat this game and then immediately started another playthrough. I wanted to recapture that feeling of experiencing its world for the first time. If you haven’t played BotW, I’m jealous that you get to see this game with fresh eyes.
BotW is quite possibly the best game of not only this decade but the best game ever created. It was such a battle to choose what game defined this decade for me, and BotW almost took the top spot.
1. Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas (New Vegas) is not the best game of the decade for everyone. The game is a bug-filled, often ugly, and obtuse game that has flying killer bugs that will poison you. New Vegas is a flawed game that I love with every ounce of my being. I will fight for this game at every opportunity that I get and have already written about why it holds up.
New Vegas sets up a conflict between warring nations and ideals that goes beyond “fascists bad” and “democracy good.” There are no good people. There is a sense of history and place in this world. The NCR, a democratic republic in a desolate wasteland, committed a campaign of genocide against the locals and is being torn apart by infighting. Caesar’s Legion is a slave-holding and militaristic culture led by an autocrat. Mr. House is a libertarian who will use his vast intellect to remake the world in his image.
Additionally, there are so many smaller factions that I don’t have time to outline. All the factions are equally valid (except Caesar’s Legion), and you can decide to ally with none of them. No matter who you choose, you are going to make someone angry and have to live with your choices.
I love the desert and have only grown fonder of it after moving away. The world of New Vegas is beautiful because of its austerity. There aren’t a lot of buildings in the Mojave Desert, so you’re often fighting against the elements and wasteland critters. You may also be jumped by a crew of Legionnaires because you might have assassinated their leader. I know that New Vegas didn’t create scripted events, but it uses them so effectively to place you in this world.
The DLC is strange and great. It builds out the world and presents odd new wrinkles in the Fallout canon. The DLCs range from a horror-themed casino heist to a B-movie plot about floating robots and dating your disembodied brain. The DLC stories are tied together by an unseen character named Ulysses. His story culminates in the Lonesome Road DLC, where your relation to Ulysses and your character’s dark backstory is finally revealed. It is an audacious idea to take away a player character’s backstory and replace it with a developer-concocted one, and I love that they were willing to go there.
I found my deep conviction for New Vegas years after it came out. It was a slow burn that took over my brain and made it so that all I can think about in my free time is what happens after New Vegas? Do the Tunnelers destroy all life in the Mojave? Did the NCR win? Will I ever be able to romance Arcade Gannon? These questions keep me up at night. Bethesda you cowards. Let Obsidian make another Fallout game. I played The Outer Worlds, and it didn’t stick with me. I’m begging you.
Other Notable Games
Here are a few games that were on the list and were then dropped:
- Mass Effect 2: I’m sorry Garrus.
- The Walking Dead: Season One: Lee dying crushed me.
- The Outer Wilds: This is a beautiful and impactful game that did not hit me as hard as these other games because nostalgia is a toxic impulse.
- We Know The Devil: For making me realize that I was a snob for not playing dating sims.
- Overwatch: Overwatch is a good shooter that I am so burnt out on and never want to touch again.
- Super Meat Boy: For breaking my brain and making me want to grind my face against challenging games.
- Bloodborne: It has wormed its way into my brain, and now I have eyes on my brain.
- Minecraft: I don’t think I need to say anything else.