My Favorite Video Games of the Last Decade

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.

Gone Home

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.

Virginia

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.

Firewatch

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.

Sometimes I Play Video Games: “Gone Home”

A common debate lately surrounds whether video games can be considered art. As far as I know, the initial argument was launched by a post from the late Roger Ebert, who argued that they “could never be art” which met him with the wrath of angry gamers (who, I’ve since learned, are a crowd that doesn’t care much for criticism of their games). For a long time, I was pretty ambivalent on the subject, feeling that games often had artistic properties but lacked a certain individual purpose or statement that I tend to associate with art, or at least my definition of it.

A good example is a game like Grand Theft Auto V, which I played when it was released a couple years ago. Its graphics were absolutely stunning, featuring gorgeous scenery, realistic city streets, and characters that really moved and felt like humans. But all of this technical mastery was done in service of a go-nowhere story that just involved running around and shooting people, randomly running over pedestrians, etc. Part of why I’ve never been big on video games is I feel an enormous percentage of them resemble GTA: they’re the equivalent of blockbuster Hollywood movies that dazzle with special effects but ultimately have no real purpose or insight. When held to an art-level standard where I was looking into what it was trying to say or what its themes were beyond “wouldn’t it be cool to kill a ton of people,” most games fell woefully short.

Part of this is that, for a long time, games have been mostly marketed toward a specific demographic of over-caffeinated young boys/men, which has been associated with a lot of blood, mayhem, and explosions. In the last year, I’ve been sort of passively following the industry as critics like Anita Sarkeesian have focused on many of the long-time issues in games and have argued for increased diversity in the business. Sarkeesian has been basically under siege from the gaming community since starting her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, but I see her as a true critic: someone who loves what they are criticizing, and does it because she wants everything to be better. Her goal of increasing the range of stories games can tell and improving the way characters are depicted mostly aligns with where I wish video games would go — more towards telling stories and away from senselessly blowing stuff up.

One game Sarkeesian recommended was Gone Home, the first release by The Fullbright Company, a small indie game studio in Portland, Oregon. When I played it, it was really easy to see why she recommended it: it is a game grounded in characters and story, and it proves the artistic potential video games can have when they’re not being aimed at such a narrow audience.

In Gone Home, you play from the perspective of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns from a year of studying abroad to find her family missing from the old mansion they moved into the year before. The gameplay is exceedingly simple: you move around the house from room to room, and find little clues sprinkled around the house that allow you to piece together what happened to your family. (I should add that this all takes place in 1995 — the story kind of doesn’t work in a world of smartphones.) Most of the plot comes from journal entries you find from your younger sister Samantha, who directly tells you her story through the duration of the game.

The advantage video games have over any other medium is that they allow you to play an active part in the story — in a sense, to live it out yourself. Many games waste this potential, but Gone Home really pushes it into an interesting place. As Kaitlin, you never speak with anyone in the game, but you really inhabit the character and feel like you’re in her head as you try to piece together the game’s central mystery.

This is part of why I’m sharing as little of the plot as I possibly can: a ton of what made Gone Home a really memorable experience for me was the feeling of piecing together all of the threads myself. The game gives you a certain amount of info on a platter (some disbelief needs to be suspended at how many useful plot tidbits are just left laying around), but tons of the story takes place “off the page,” so to speak, relying on your ability to draw certain conclusions about the characters based on what they left in the house. This is an ambiguity in storytelling that I really love and had never really gotten out of a video game before.

Where Gone Home really succeeds beyond other games is in its characters — which sounds crazy, since none of them are actually on screen, and only Samantha speaks. But through the objects and artifacts in the house, I developed a real understanding of who each character was and what their motivations were. And regardless of what they did, the game portrays each of them with a tremendous amount of empathy. While many games are about good characters and bad characters, the people in Gone Home all behave like real, flawed human beings.

Gone Home is the game that really convinced me that Ebert was wrong in his initial assessment of video games, largely because it feels like a real statement. It has a lot to say about identity, family, tolerance, and the secrets people keep from others. The video game medium was also necessary for the way the creators wanted to tell this story, and part of what ultimately makes it so poignant. Despite a relatively brief amount of gameplay (I brisked through it in about three hours), Gone Home is a game that has really stuck with me in a way I didn’t think video games could.

If you want to play it and then talk with me about it, buy it at www.gonehomegame.com.