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Here are my favorite games of the decade. They’re in chronological order. 2011 was not a good year. But 2013, 2016, and 2018 were fabulous.
While this kind of column stirs a lot of debate, I enjoy the process of looking back and remembering what it was like to play these games for the first time. I’ve made some attempts to describe why I like these games.
While I have fond memories of most of these, my all-time favorite is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, which came out for the PlayStation 3 in 2013. My colleagues aren’t as excited as me about how this stands out in the zombie genre. But it’s the characters and the writing that pulled me into this journey. I played it for 25 hours or so in 2013, and I played it again with my daughter when the definitive edition came out for the PlayStation 4.
The Last of Us is a touching story about a man who loses his daughter early in the apocalypse, survives for 20 years as a brutal and unemotional killer, and then finds another young teen that he must save. The relationship between Joel and Ellie is very well crafted, as they must constantly rely on each other and save each other in a dangerous world. Now that may not be interesting to a lot of you. But I’ve suffered loss in my life, and portraying this in a way that has meaning is what makes this game interesting to me.
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You can argue that I’ve neglected many worthy games. I decided I should only write about games I’ve finished for this column. Where applicable, I completed the single-player campaigns, and they stayed with me for a long time. While The Last of Us is my clear favorite, the rest of these are in chronological order.
Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment) — This helped convince me that games are high art. It’s visually arresting, creepy, and it has an interesting story that blurs the line between the titular character’s imagination and reality. Alan Wake suffers from writer’s block, but as he overcomes it and begins writing, he finds his words start to become reality. And then his wife vanishes, and he must get her back.
Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games): This was a massive epic Western that successfully blends the story of John Marston, a vanishing breed of gunslinger, and a vast open world in the Wild West. As I said 10 years ago, the variety of activities — such as horse racing and hunting — keeps you from getting bored. You can take on a hundred bad guys with a Gatling gun or just sit back in the evening and watch the wild critters roam across a moon-blanched prairie.
The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow) — This interactive fairy tale starts with very creative gameplay. The worlds opens as just a white screen, and you splash black paint on it to bring its shapes to life. And it has an odd story about a king dealing with the emptiness of life.
Journey (That Game Company) — This beautiful story with rich landscapes tells a story with incredible emotional, and it’s all done without any words. It’s truly a work of art.
The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) — Telltale hit its mark in forcing players to make wrenching choices about who survives and who falls to the zombie horde. This is where we learn that you can hide among the undead by smearing their innards on your body so they can’t smell you.
Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar) — The 69 missions in the vast open world give us an amazing breadth of irredeemably indecent gameplay. I still remember scenes involving the three main characters, like when two of them squared off with guns pointing at each other over an open grave in a cemetery. And this world went on to become a living game with GTA Online.
Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics) — The developers remade Lara Croft, changing her from a haughty and overconfident character to a vulnerable woman coming of age under life-or-death pressures. Tomb Raiders turned a sex symbol into a real character and fueled a revival for a franchise that had run its course.
BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games) — It was rare to see a woman like Elizabeth be a lead character in 2013. Ken Levine and his team created a memorable world of Columbia, a city in the sky with all sorts of rails that you ride. It’s a combination of sci-fi alternative universe as well as a retro look at America’s racist history. And it has some thrilling BioShock gameplay and some truly horrifying enemies. It also has an amazing ending that takes a lot of explanation to understand.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios) — This story of the bond between two brothers is moving in part because Starbreeze weaves the big twist in the story into the gameplay itself. It started indie developer Josef Fares on his road to where he could credibly say “F*** the Oscars.” Video games are art, dammit, and you would see that if you play this game.
The Last of Us (Naughty Do) — See my description above.
Watch Dogs (Ubisoft) — I like this vision of a world where an oppressive government, with the support of huge private contractors, would fuel the resistance of cyber hackers, who could hack into anybody’s smartphone and control the smart city as they resisted the totalitarian forces.
Titanfall (Respawn Entertainment) — This shooter gave us giant mech robots falling from the sky and running on walls. Respawn’s execution was so strong that it created a rabid fan base that is still demanding more.
Wolfenstein: The New Order (Machine Games) — This reimagining of the Wolfenstein franchise is quite creative. It posits that the Nazis won World War II and projects a world in the 1960s based on what happens when their culture, not ours, is supreme. And BJ Blazkowicz and his cohorts are fantastic characters to launch the resistance against such a corrupt white supremacist empire. The enemies are powerful, but the guns you use against them are even stronger. 2017’s New Colossus is an excellent follow-up on how the Nazis could find sympathetic friends in America as well.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Monolith) — It takes some brilliant writing to squeeze an epic tale into a part of the Tolkien lore many had forgotten. The combination of Celebrimbor and the Ranger Talion produces some epic fights in the open world of Mordor. Who would have thought there could be so many different kinds of orcs to kill or possess? I love the sequel, 2017’s Shadow of War, as well.