AKA ranking my children.
Creating the list for my Top 10 Films of the Decade was hard enough, but video games takes the stress to a whole other level. Think about it: where do we even begin? This decade has been incredible for gamers, and with both technology and interactive storytelling advancing every single year, the bar is always being raised.
To bring up the point I made in my previous Top 10, the drive to tell compelling and everlasting stories is stronger than ever. We're miles past the simple 2D platformers of the 80s and 90s. Now, the focus is on the stories, the polished gameplay, the gorgeous vistas, and the complex and profoundly human characters. Video games are now a staple of modern art, on the same playing field as most film, literature, and television. And with that comes a whole new set of expectations. It takes a lot to impress gamers these days, so when we're impressed, we're really, really, REALLY impressed.
I've compiled a list of games that have moved me in some way, and shaped the industry over the past ten years. These titles will prevail time and be remembered as true game-changers (pun 100% intended). I'm talking about video games that are more than just button-mashing fun, but titles that provide such powerful escapism that they enrapture the player. When you flip that bad boy on, nothing in the real world can interrupt you. These are games that first and foremost entertain, but leave you looking at reality just a little bit differently.
Grab your Mountain Dew, Cheetos, and chocolate covered pretzels. Let's dive in!
10. WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER (2014) - Developed by Machine Games
When you're looking for a game that's ruthless and uncompromising, nothing beats the "Wolfenstein" franchise. Machine Games revamped the sci-fi WWII shooter in 2014 with their critically acclaimed "Wolfenstein: The New Order," which put players in an alternate-reality where the Nazis won the war. As you traverse war-ridden Europe and lay waste to the Third Reich, you become immersed in not only the over-the-top and shocking violence, but the tragic story. It's a brooding narrative filled with emotion, carefully constructed characters, and a deeply rooted sense of morality.
There’s no denying that all “Wolfenstein” entries fantasize real-world events in order to manipulate our fears into entertainment, but it does so with poise. Machine Games’ vision of the series takes a familiar story and formula and grounds it in a realistic world with likable characters and menacing villains. At a deeper level, though, it reveals a profound message on what the words “freedom” and “justice” really mean. It’s refreshing, and dare I say, beautiful.
9. FAR CRY 3 (2012) - Developed by Ubisoft Montreal
This was the game that brought "Far Cry" back into the limelight. It took what fans loved about the franchise, such as the gorgeous views and menacing villains, and gave the whole thing a much needed overhaul. The open-world was expanded to include unique and memorable side quests, and introduced a map unlocking system that would then become a staple of all Ubisoft games. Not to mention, it had the most polished gameplay and crafting systems of any "Far Cry" game in the series up to that point.
In addition to its entertainment and strong replay value, it was the game's main antagonist that blew fans away. Vaas was as diabolical and vile as he was mesmerizing. The now-famous line, "Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?" invoked a powerful reaction in me, and this soft-spoken, haunting question perfectly reflects the intensity of the entire game. Many entries in the franchise have been released since "Far Cry 3," but this one will always be at the top.
8. DISHONORED (2012) - Developed by Arkane Studios
Throw a few tablespoons of steampunk into a blender, followed by a cup of medieval, and a pinch of Victorian London. Give it a mix, pour it into your favorite cup, and take a sip of "Dishonored." Of all the games released in the 2010s, none have had such a remarkable and beautiful art style. It's vibrant yet gritty; brutalist but welcoming; it's terrifying and intimidating, and simultaneously bewitching. As players explore the fictional world of Dunwall, they become enriched in the lore, the history, and the characters who make up this damning, classist society. And this is all before you even consider the gameplay.
While the artistic freedom and originality of the game is enough to put "Dishonored" on this list, the world is enhanced by the gameplay. You are tasked with taking out a vast food chain of corrupt diplomats and ruthless inventors, but how you do so is entirely up to you. It's possible to beat the entire game without killing a single person, which for an open-world game crawling with trigger-happy-sword-swinging enemies is a remarkable challenge. This is a game that rewards players who take their time, explore every nook and cranny, and replay the story over and over. And all of this together is what makes "Dishonored" one of the best dark fantasies every made.
7. CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 2 (2012) - Developed by Treyarch
You've got to admit, with ten "Call of Duty" releases over the past decade, the odds of one making it onto this list were pretty high. And while there are many to choose from, "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" stands out for several reasons. Yes, it was the entry in the franchise I put the most hours into; yes, it was the first "Call of Duty" that my friends and I actively played together; but what made it so unique was the multitude of content it offered. The replay value was, and still is, unmatched.
"Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" ironed out many of the wrinkles from previous games. The map design was great across the board, with Standoff, Hijacked, Studio, and Raid becoming staples of the franchise. This was also the "Call of Duty" to switch up killstreaks into scorestreaks, which, in my opinion, was one of the greatest changes in franchise history. Following that, its campaign was the first and only story-driven mode to feature multiple endings depending on how you completed certain missions. And for fans of Zombies, which I am not, it was a robust and carefully crafted descent into brutal madness. "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" is easily one of, if not the best entry in the series.
6. ASSASSIN'S CREED ODYSSEY (2018) - Developed by Ubisoft
Second chances are important, and there is no better example than my experience with Ubisoft's latest entry in the "Assassin's Creed" franchise. When I reviewed "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" back in 2018, I called it an old-fashioned RPG. To me, the upgrading and character progression felt wildly unbalanced, and I even went as far as to call its overall gameplay design manipulative. But then I started over, and next thing I knew I was clocking in over 50 hours. So I went back to my review, realized how wrong I was, and rewrote it.
The detail of this massive open-world is awe-inspiring. The sunlit beaches, bustling towns, sprawling forests, and the ancient ruins are undeniably exciting and breathtaking to explore. Missions are everywhere, from simple fetch quests to enormous conquest battles, and the more quests you complete, the more special abilities and perks you can unlock and upgrade. This is a sprawling, robust RPG that took some getting used to, but once I was in, I couldn't put the controller down.
5. BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY (2011) - Developed by Rocksteady Studios
The Arkham series is easily the best superhero franchise in the history of video games. Four entries allowed players to take control of their favorite caped crusader, but it is the second title, "Batman: Arkham City," that overshadows all others. Slick, hard-hitting combat; an ominous and gritty metal playground filled with enough villains, easter eggs, and puzzles to satisfy the most hardcore nerd. This was, and is, the quintessential Batman experience.
The story? Whew. This was a mature, violent, and often shocking adventure. Rocksteady took the grim close-quarters story from "Batman: Arkham Asylum" and expanded it to an even darker setting: crime-ridden Gotham City. Players spend their time stopping crime in the gutters of the city, but the vigilante justice doesn't stop there. The rich and the powerful, the secret societies, the gang lords, the super-powered - all of them are dealt with in this content-filled game. And with a climax that is as surprising as it is emotionally raw, "Arkham City" is a shoe-in for this list.
4. BIOSHOCK: INFINITE (2013) - Developed by Irrational Games
To call the plot of "BioShock: Infinite" complex would be an understatement. There are layers upon layers of mysteries to unravel in this truly gorgeous story-driven shooter, and the mind-bending twists that Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games are able to dish out are beyond thought-provoking. It balances intense racism and classism with fears of religious tyranny and the controversies of immigration, ultimately creating a world that looks beautiful on the outside but is slowly festering from within.
Let's be honest, "BioShock: Infinite" is not remembered for its fairly average gameplay, but rather the world in which players traverse. Columbia, the floating city in the sky, is the most captivating video game world I have ever had the pleasure of exploring, and the fictional setting of 1912 America makes it all that much more intriguing. It is so carefully arranged, so expertly designed and polished that no matter what you think of the uninspired gameplay mechanics, the final result is nothing short of stunning.
3. SPIDER-MAN (2018) - Developed by Insomniac Games
I don't care if you love Marvel or despise them to your core, there is no denying that Insomniac Games' "Spider-Man" is the best video game iteration of the wall-crawler ever created. Narratively speaking, Insomniac Games has created an ornate and deeply stirring experience that focuses less on the grandeur of heroic dilemmas – thus avoiding many common superhero film clichés – and more on the power of personal, human crisis. It's bold, surprising, and endlessly satisfying.
To continually keep things fresh, the world of Manhattan is absolutely packed full of side-missions, crimes to stop, challenges to complete, and my all-time favorite addition, backpacks to collect. Webs attach to buildings, encouraging players to consider physics when traversing the metal jungle, and when mixed with stylized parkour, it becomes just as fun to watch as it does to play. Spidey has never been better.
2. THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM (2011) - Developed by Bethesda Game Studios
The RPG that defined a generation. "Skyrim" is as deep of a game as you want it to be. On the surface, players can traverse a snow-covered medieval land filled with monsters, bandits, and enemy factions whilst completing numerous distinct quests. But if you dig a little deeper, "Skyrim" is an elaborate, seemingly endless role-playing experience. Live the simple life by getting married, adopting a child, building a house, and going to Bard school; or, if you're like me, upgrade your melee skills, become a werewolf, and join the Thieves Guild to then obliterate everyone and take their gold. Or do a little bit of everything.
The magic of "Skyrim" is the flexibility to live out whatever life you so choose. Unlike other robust RPGs, such as "The Witcher 3" or "Fallout 4," "The Elder Scrolls" is a series that is as violent and action-heavy as you want it to be. The combat is loose at times, but it only makes engagements more tactile and strategic. And with the option of joining multiple factions, buying property, going to college, and starting a family, "Skyrim" is just as much a fantasy simulator as it is an RPG. Even nine years later, this game continues to exemplify masterful game development.
1. GOD OF WAR (2018) - Developed by Santa Monica Studios
The "God of War" reboot easily steamrolls over every other game on this list. Santa Monica took an enormous risk when reimagining their bloody hack-and-slash for a new generation, and the result isn't a molecule less than extraordinary. We are reintroduced to Kratos: a man who is haunted by a dark and violent past, but is attempting to start anew. He seeks peace, but torment seems to follow him to the edges of the universe, leaving him trapped in relentless agony. And to make things even more stressful for the big guy, he now has a son.
What works so well for “God of War” is that Santa Monica Studios has systematically changed every inch of the franchise while marvelously maintaining the same soul of the original games. Kratos is still drowning in anger, but the care for his son takes priority. His parenting is harsh, to say the least, but this leaves room for character growth that’s just as touching as it is reflexive on real-world parent-child relationships. The narrative questions the ideology of sacrifice and the importance of helping those who are far different from you, something that no other “God of War” has ever done. All of these powerful additions are complemented by slick, tactical, satisfying gameplay, further cementing "God of War" as best game of the decade.