Since it looks like all of us are about to have a lot more free time, I thought I’d share my list of favorite video games of the last decade (which I meant to finish earlier). In what I’m sure is a shock, I have somewhat odd taste in games: I care almost purely about story and have minimum interest in games that are only about competing with other people or trying to defeat ultra-difficult bosses and master the controls. Gameplay still matters, obviously, but only in terms of how it serves the story, and so there are a few games on this list that maybe are more like interactive movies than what a lot of people think of as games. I recommend all of these stories highly and think a few would appeal even to people who don’t think of themselves as liking video games.
These aren’t in any particular order — even though I love obsessively ranking things, for some reason with video games it feels pointless since a lot of them have very different goals and aspirations.
Also, I own a PlayStation 3 and 4 and do not bother with other inferior consoles. I’m extremely loyal to the Sony brand and consider X-Box and Nintendo fans to be worse human beings than me.
The original “walking simulator,” Gone Home was polarizing — some consider it among the best games of all time while a very loud segment of players don’t even think it’s a game (this will be a recurring theme of this list). I don’t really care what it is, personally, because this was one of the best stories told in the last decade in any medium. Gone Home put you in the shoes of a teen girl who returns home from studying abroad and finds that her parents and sister are missing. You wander around the home, finding clues and hints about their whereabouts while never directly interacting with anyone. The tapes your sister leaves behind tell a powerful enough straight-forward story, but the real genius of Gone Home was how the game played out in your head, allowing players to form their own conclusions about the characters by extrapolating and connecting dots. While only 2-3 hours in length, I got a lot more out of this game than the vast majority of bloated big budget titles.
Life is Strange
An angsty little episodic teen drama with medium graphics, questionable voice acting, and some utterly cringeworthy older-men-writing-for-teenagers dialogue, Life is Strange was certainly a game that had some very obvious flaws. But few games have gotten me as emotionally hooked into the characters and the story, and I think it created its own little universe that allowed me to look past some of its shortcomings and appreciate a game attempting to tell a story in a different way. You play as Max Caulfield, a girl who gains the ability to rewind time, which influences the main narrative involving her reuniting with her troubled friend Chloe and solving the disappearance of one of the popular girls from school while a possible apocalypse looms over their town. The game gives you some very difficult choices along the way in its Twin Peaks meets Freaks and Geeks story, which is full of genuinely shocking twists and turns.
Mass Effect 2 and 3
The final two games in this fantastic trilogy were a perfect mix of story and gameplay, with a mix of compelling characters and a plotline with real stakes. Playing as a customizable main character named Shepard (a heroic woman if you have any taste, but I am aware that some cretins play renegade and/or as the dull male counterpart), your mission is to save the galaxy which involves assembling a collection of colorful cohorts from different alien races who all have their own intertwined conflicts in the game’s lore, which is sort of like Star Wars but better. ME2 is correctly recognized as one of the best games of its era, and ME3 delivers what I felt was a satisying conclusion to the series, though be aware that many players (read: whiny nerds) threw a shitfit over it in a similar scenario to Game of Thrones.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
One of the great issues in video games now for me is bloat: gamers want to “get their money’s worth,” which means stories often stretch to absurd padded lengths and make you completely sick of the game by the time you finish (if you even do). The Witcher 3 is maybe the only game I played with one of these epic length stories where the duration felt earned due to the emotional core of the story, which is mostly the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia trying to find his ward and daughter figure, Ciri, who is being hunted by the Wild Hunt who want to use her ultra-powerful elder blood. Geralt is a somewhat bland protagonist, but he’s surrounded by one of the better groups of complex and well-drawn women characters in games, and the gameplay was an intriguing challenge as each monster you slay required a different strategy.
The Last of Us
Let’s hope coronavirus doesn’t go like the pandemic at the start of The Last of Us, which sweeps through humanity in its opening and 20 years later leaves the uninfected living in military quarantine zones or cults while the infected have turned into ravenous fungus zombies. In this post-apocalyptic environment, a smuggler named Joel reluctantly escorts a sarcastic young teenager named Ellie across the country in hopes that she can provide a cure for the disease. Developer Naughty Dog’s previous series, Uncharted, ran into an issue where the gameplay was non-stop shooting and violence, but the cut scenes were jovial with characters who seemed unaffected by their rampant killing spree (something I later learned is called “ludonarrative dissonance”). The Last of Us is rare among modern violent games in that the bloodshed feels gross and wrong, though necessary, and as the player you’re thrust into brutal situations that aren’t these fun shoot-em-up scenarios. This means the game is heavy and bleak, maybe to a fault, but the story is so gripping, the relationship between Joel and Ellie gives it heart, and its ending is one of the best in any media of the decade, with a resolution that is true to the characters and has about 50 different shades of ambiguity.
The least gamey of any game I played, Virginia is more like a 2-hour movie where you are in the body of the main character. Inspired heavily by Twin Peaks and The X-Files, you play as an FBI detective named Anne Tarver, who along with her partner investigates the case of a missing young boy, which quickly gets unbelievably surreal and weird. Featuring no dialogue, the game relies on its score by Lyndon Holland and its unique art direction and character designs to tell the story, which is trippy and challenging in a way that games rarely are. Even if this isn’t the most interactive game, it’s worth experiencing once — maybe twice if you miss details the first time.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Another rare open-world success story, Horizon Zero: Dawn scores high for its unique setting, taking place in the distant future where humanity has been reduced to primitive tribes while surrounded by mysterious dinosaur-like machines that are starting to become violent. The main character, young tribal outcast Aloy, offered a different kind of protagonist than the typical gruff sarcastic dude, though her supporting cast in the tribal storyline was less developed and was the one area where the game suffered. The stand-out part of this game was the story of humanity and the world itself, which was gradually unraveled Gone Home style through audio logs in different locations. Through those, you learn of how the world became like it is in the current setting and how humanity responded to an unimaginable crisis.
In the heartbreaking opening to Firewatch, you learn the story of your character meeting his wife, and how she began to suffer from early dementia that caused you to take a menial job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest to escape. You have no contact with other characters except for your supervisor, Delilah, and the relationship that unfolds is one of the best-written and emotionally involving in any game. The story itself also increases in tension as you find increasingly strange activity in the forest, which is even scarier because of the sense of aloneness conveyed by the game. This is another walking simulator type game without a ton of action, but is one of the stronger narratives you’ll find in games.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
Another walking simulator, this one takes place in a British village in 1984 where everyone has mysteriously vanished. You simply walk around and explore the village, going from house to house and uncovering audio that depicts the final days of the humans there. This is another game with low interactivity, but it’s a hell of a story with some of the best music and voice acting of any game, and its story has some satisfyingly weird twists and turns.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Yet another walking simulator type game, this one tells the story of a seemingly cursed family through a series of poignant vignettes that show different characters reaching their end, sometimes in bizarre and surreal ways. As the protagonist, you arrive at the family’s mansion and uncover the history by walking from room to room, which is about the extent of the gameplay other than some minor controls that add to the immersion of each story. This was another rare game that felt risky and weird, and sometimes it seemed more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than a video game.