It’s been a weird 10 years for video games.
Still a relatively young industry, gaming has mutated massively over the course of the last decade, from the rise of the utterly massive mobile market, to the dawn of serious big-money eSports competition, to the now automatically assumed online nature of almost every gaming system. As more and more money has come piling in (bringing with it both opportunities, and the hellish demands of practices like crunch), gaming has only gotten more spread out, oozing out onto new devices, new markets, and (occasionally) new ideas. This was the decade of the first consumer-viable home VR rig; the first truly game-friendly mobile devices; the first mass market controller designed to make gaming more accessible for people living with disabilities. It also saw the rise of focused online toxicity, harassment campaigns, and myriad death threats against those who broke with “gamer” orthodoxy, a fun reminder that, as the internet has e- and de-volved over the last 10 years, gaming has twisted, ascended, and corroded right along with it.
Which is to say nothing of the games themselves, which have been just as busy innovating, iterating, triumphing, and, occasionally, just straight-up copying what’s come before. Pitting them against each other has never been The A.V. Club’s games team’s style—there’s a reason our annual end-of-year round-up is “Games We Liked,” not “The Best Games Of The Year.” But it still felt important to look back at these titles to get a handle on, well, what’s actually going on.
So rather than offering up a ranked list, we’ve gone with a more holistic approach to our end-of-decade content, focusing on one game every year that represents a major trend in the medium, or which was simply significant enough to be deemed important in its own right. (For an entirely constructed definition of “important,” of course.) The hope is that, taken as a whole, these selections give some kind of road map to how we (and the medium) got from there to here, a long and bumpy road that encompasses everything from children playing with digital Legos to, well, children playing with digital Legos, but also now they have guns. (And so, so many dance emotes.)
So, without further ado: Please look at, and then yell at us about, this, The A.V. Club’s official list of the most important games of the 2010s.
The first version of Minecraft, a barebones set of virtual Lego pieces, was released to the public in 2009. But the version that came out in 2010 was the one that became a huge hit. Rather than an overnight success, Minecraft built word-of-mouth buzz over the course of a year, thanks to the low price of the pre-beta and pre-release version (ensuring it could be put into as many hands as possible) and the frequent updates coming from the developers at Mojang—imagine a Lego set that’s not only getting new pieces every few months, but new modes and physics that improve how those new pieces work together. The simplicity of the gameplay, and the general creative freedom, also made Minecraft an early success of the then-nascent trend of video game streaming. Combine that with its colorful graphics and cartoonish violence, and Minecraft was able to become that perfect storm of “appeals to kids” and “parents shouldn’t object to it” that launched it from indie gaming darling to the shelves of bookstores and retail giants everywhere. It would be a few years before creator Markus Persson used his mountain of Minecraft money as an excuse to be an asshole on social media, and even more before Microsoft paid several billion dollars for the rights to the game as another jewel in its digital crown. But in 2010 it was still a feel-good game that could be—and was—appreciated by everybody.
Other notable 2010 titles: It was a good year for high-profile sequels: Super Mario Galaxy 2 gave the Wii another excellent Nintendo game, Mass Effect 2 and its high-pressure “suicide mission” offered one of gaming’s all-time great space epics, and StarCraft II’s Wings Of Liberty campaign resurrected a legendary strategy brand. Things got nicely spooky with the criminally underrated Alan Wake, the hit horror adventure Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the lovably B-tier Twin Peaks-knock-off Deadly Premonition. In less exciting releases, BioShock 2 was a dull retread of the first game (saved by a great DLC expansion), Metroid: Other M was horrible misstep for the series, and the Xbox’s motion-tracking Kinect camera was an interesting piece of technology that almost worked some of the time. [Sam Barsanti]
2011: Dark Souls
Japanese developer From Software had been pursuing the themes at the core of its breakout hit Dark Souls—obscurity, deliberation, and a deep, conversation-driving sense of mystery—for years before Lordran finally made the big time. Games like the King’s Field titles, and especially 2009’s Demon’s Souls, had already laid the groundwork for its success, putting a heavy emphasis on indirect storytelling, combat that prizes observation and patience over twitch reflexes, and worlds teetering on the edge of a very particular breed of melancholy ruin. And yet, nothing before, or since—despite the best efforts of both From, and a whole host of imitators working in gaming’s latest awkward portmanteau, the Souls-like genre—has matched Dark Souls’ breed of quietly confident genius. The game’s highly infectious DNA has cropped up repeatedly in other games throughout the last nine years, whether in map designs that loop back onto themselves with clever shortcuts, battles that raise the stakes by robbing players of vital resource every time they die, or—in the case of developers incapable of seeing the hostile, snake-filled forest for the trees—by simply piling difficulty after difficulty atop their players’ heads. But despite its reputation, Dark Souls isn’t some gauntlet of impossible, escalating challenges; rather, its true legacy is as a game that has faith in its players to persevere, help each other out, and ultimately triumph over the damned souls populating its brilliantly realized world.
Other notable 2011 titles: Rockstar pushed facial animation technology with its mystery simulator L.A. Noire, even if its bona fides as an actual detective game left people in doubt. Skyrim proved that sometimes bigger really is better, giving Elder Scrolls fans a vast wintry playground to get lost in. And Portal 2 set a high bar, not just for Valve’s venerable “teach-and-test” approach to puzzle design, but for proving that video games could be just as funny as any other medium when developers were actually willing to try. [William Hughes]
Game developers have been hunting the ideal of “playable movies” since the days when Dana Plato was still trying to stay out of the Night Trap, often to disastrous, embarrassing, and pixelated effect. That shifted in 2012, though, when Telltale Games—formerly known for reviving beloved adventure game franchises like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, and currently known for the garbage fire of bad labor practices it eventually devolved into—released a licensed zombie game that managed to make watching its story as gripping as playing it. Prefacing the rise of streamer culture—and the move by more and more people toward experiencing games content by sitting back and simply watching it, instead of playing along—Telltale’s The Walking Dead pioneered a style of gameplay where asking the right question was as important as twitch reflexes, and where shouting your opinion from the couch could be as important a contribution as pulling a trigger. It doesn’t matter that many—most, really—of the choices you were making didn’t actually matter. (No matter how many “Clementine will remember you said that”s the game threw in your way.) The Walking Dead expertly milked the illusion for all it was worth, bringing the dream of interactive film closer to fruition that it had ever been before.
Other notable 2012 titles: Mass Effect brought its first trilogy to a close (while also sparking a minor revolt among a player base unsatisfied with said ending in the process). Diablo III emerged from its cocoon—although Blizzard would spend years tweaking it into proper running order. Spec Ops: The Line took a hatchet to Call Of Duty-style military shooters, Borderlands 2 introduced the world to Butt Stallion, and the Wii U was, uh, extant. (With apologies to Nintendo Land.) [William Hughes]
The legacy of Bioshock: Infinite—which appeared almost instantly—will forever be as much about the impact on gaming theory and criticism as about B:I itself. Here was a game that immediately spawned widespread and impassioned discussion about what games can and can’t (or should and shouldn’t) do, about the disjunction between so many first-person shooters and “deep” storytelling, about the uses and misuses of history and political philosophy—and did so in service of a grandly ambitious video game that rarely paused to catch its breath. The floating world of Columbia was a marvel of design, breathtaking in its scope and thrilling to traverse, even before the game starts throwing alternate realities and timeline warps at you. And whether a player was enthralled or disappointed by its applications of magic and bounty of ideas about power, guilt, and redemption, they felt compelled to engage with the material, an overwhelming and near-universal degree of engagement to which only a handful of games can lay claim. The defenses (a sharp critique of how even well-intentioned movements get perverted by power, e.g.) are as ferocious as the critiques (a “both sides”-ism when it comes to white supremacy and the rebellion against such an ideology, for one), and that’s even before questions about ludonarrative dissonance (a term applied to the franchise since the first installment) come into play. Bioshock: Infinite got players to set down their controllers and address it in the world of ideas; generating an ongoing conversation may be the most magical thing about it.
Other notable 2013 titles: In a year which saw the most meaningful console upgrades of the decade—the arrival of both Xbox One and PS4—multiple games vied for cultural significance. The Last Of Us managed to achieve the scale of an epic novel with a story that proved profoundly affecting. Super Mario 3D World managed the difficult feat of reinventing Nintendo’s most iconic title without turning off longtime fans—if anything, it made Mario et. al even more beloved. And Ridiculous Fishing gave your cell phone the most unexpected pleasure of all: Creating an engaging game about a dude sitting on a boat holding a stick that actually required mastery, not grinding. [Alex McLevy]
When you’ve built one of the most popular multi-media franchises of all time, what do you do for an encore? If you’re Bungie, the company that showed us the universe through the sleek helmet of a trigger-happy space marine, you try to repeat the feat—to once more conquer the crowded landscape of the first-person shooter, even as you reinvent the genre for a new age. Billed as the first “shared-world shooter,” Destiny promised to transport the frantic run-and-gun gameplay of the Halo series to an enormous MMO sandbox, one designed—conceptually, cosmetically, some would say cynically—to recall everything from Star Wars to Lord Of The Rings. But though Bungie had plenty of resources to realize its ambitions (Activision poured some $500 million into the project, helping secure the involvement of Peter Dinklage and Paul McCartney, among others), the road to Destiny’s delayed release was bumpy. The big snag came when the brass scrapped the entire story several years into production, forcing the team to hastily draft up a new one (“written without writers”) around missions that couldn’t themselves be re-conceived. Not surprisingly, the finished product weathered a lot of criticism, much of it centered around a patchy, insignificant plot, and mythology that the developers relegated to supplemental materials rather than integrating into the game itself. Yet Destiny was a hit all the same, selling more in its first five days than any franchise-launching title before it. And though players complained about its flaws and bugs, they stuck with it, hooked on the fluid combat and gorgeous graphics, and satiated by a series of course-correcting expansions that transformed the game it started as into something very different: sleeker, more polished and altogether more fun. In the end, Destiny wasn’t a game changer of Halo proportions, but it did point the way to a new era of work-in-progress blockbusters—and of gamers willing to forgive the launch-day wrinkles of a much-hyped tentpole, under the assumption that they’d be ironed out eventually, sometimes years down the line. [A.A. Dowd]
Other notable 2014 titles: Diablo 3 completed its own piecemeal refinement with the Reaper Of Souls expansion, while Dragon Age: Inquisition barely survived a fraught production cycle of its own. South Park finally got a video game worthy of its comedy legacy, and Hearthstone took over the brains of virtual card fanatics. But the real joy—and heartbreak—of 2014 was Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s P.T., a “playable trailer” for an abandoned Silent Hill sequel as laden with mystery as it was potential (and scares). If this list is meant to serve as an examination of the trends that dominated gaming in the 2010s, then P.T. could stand in for any number of great ideas left on the wayside, abandoned by developers for multitudes of reasons, and over the protests of the people who actually played and loved them.
2015: The Witcher 3
One of the more exhausting trends to take over gaming in the 2010s was actually a holdover from the early days of the Grand Theft Auto games, one that developers like UbiSoft then spent the next several years endlessly iterating into the dust: The Big Map Full Of Things To Do. BMFOTTD games can range from the artless to the sublime (this is a genre that encompasses everything from the least engaging Assassin’s Creed game all the way up to Red Dead Redemption 2), but they all have a map, that map is full of icons, and you’re expected to drive (or ride, or run, etc.) to and do each and every one of them until either the game craps out, or you do. CD Project Red’s sprawling RPG epic The Witcher 3 took the sting out of this unpaid second job, though, by making nearly every one of the little icons on its map lead to something meaningful, rather than just another goddamn radio tower for you to climb and “sync up with.” More often than not, your reward for schlepping Geralt Of Rivia and his horse(s) Roach across the blasted countryside wasn’t just some new upgrade; it was another dose of subversive, expectation-dodging storytelling. Plenty of BMFOTTD games promise rewards or bonuses for filling out their assorted chorelists of shit to do; The Witcher 3 elevated the form by paying off the busywork with new content, rewarding far more sweetly than the promise of a new ammo holster, or the ability to see another little portion of your map.
Other notable 2015 titles: Until Dawn pushed the “interactive movie” label even further (complete with horror mainstay Larry Fessenden there to write all the cheesy dialogue). Undertale blew the indie PC gaming scene into the mainstream, while Her Story made a strong case for the redemption of FMV. Meanwhile, Bloodborne sped up the Dark Souls formula but wasn’t actually about werewolves, Fallout 4 built communities but ditched dialogue trees, and Super Mario Maker invited fans to beat Nintendo at its own game. [William Hughes]
2016: Pokémon Go
The public was in a prime position for nostalgia bait in 2016, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens hitting a year before, reminding everyone how nice it is to snuggle up with old things that once made them happy. Video gaming got its own version of that with Pokémon Go, a largely crummy mobile game that became a phenomenon thanks to its smart use of readily available technology, and a little electric mouse named Pikachu. Virtual reality headsets were starting to become more common in 2016, and while Pokémon Go couldn’t jack you in to a virtual Poké-world, it was one of the first really successful games (or even apps, since SnapChat wasn’t doing it yet) to do augmented reality gimmicks with now-ubiquitous phone cameras. If you were willing to burn your phone battery to a crisp, you could make it look like the Pokémon you found by physically walking around the world were actually jumping around right in front of you. Everyone has a phone, everyone likes Pokémon (on some level, at least), and, perhaps, most importantly, everyone could be convinced to download a free game. It was so simple that everyone could played it without much trouble, one of Nintendo and its associates’ first big stabs at the suddenly huge mobile market. Is it surprising at all that so many people gave Pokémon Go a try for at least a weekend, once upon a time?
Other notable 2016 titles: While everyone was busy with Pokémon Go, one of the greatest shooters of all time hit consoles and PC: Titanfall 2. The game was tragically and pointlessly sent off to die by EA, which chose to release it just a week after Battlefield 1, which meant it never got a chance to find enough of an audience—at least until Apex Legends resurrected some of its mechanics three years later. Also, while everyone was not buying Titanfall 2, another of the greatest shooters of all time hit consoles and PC: Overwatch, which is still as popular as ever, and still gets consistent updates and events. [Sam Barsanti]
Going into 2017, Nintendo had to make a big splash. The company probably wasn’t in any real danger of falling apart (the Wii made so much money), but the Wii U was generally perceived as a flop that had a number of good Nintendo-developed titles, but very little other software that was actually worthwhile. When the Switch was released in March 2017, Nintendo had a chance to prove that it could still make great games that weren’t bogged down by dopey motion-control gimmicks, and its latest iteration on the Zelda franchise filled that need beautifully. Taking obvious inspiration from Japanese action games like Dark Souls and western role-playing games like Skyrim, Breath Of The Wild offered a new take on Zelda that rejected some of the tropes that people have come to expect from the series—specifically, dungeons—and still managed to echo the traditional “going on an adventure” tone of the original game on the NES. Rather than telling you how to complete your quest, the game more or less tossed you out of a cave, told you to kill an evil monster, and then left you to figure out how to do that, letting you craft your experience around interesting landmarks you wanted to visit. Both Breath Of The Wild and the Switch itself were attempts by Nintendo to both go back to basics, and take unexpected steps forward after the disappointment of the Wii U, and they both worked together triumphantly to make one of gaming’s oldest companies still feel as vital and innovative in 2017 as it did in 1985 or 1990.
Other notable 2017 titles: Nintendo, naturally, had a big year in 2017: Super Mario Odyssey was a great return for that series, a rerelease of the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8 on Switch helped that game sell even more millions of copies, and other publishers even got on board as Bethesda somehow crammed the excellent 2016 Doom game onto a teensy little Switch cart. Elsewhere, Star Wars: Battlefront II’s bad microtransactions effectively changed the course of the entire industry, Destiny 2 gave everyone a chance to begrudgingly get back into Destiny, and Nier: Automata taught everyone that robots can have emotions but don’t necessarily have to wear clothes. Also, a game called Fortnite came out, but without a revolutionary free-to-play multiplayer mode in place yet, it didn’t make much of an impact quite yet. [Sam Barsanti]
If you want to get nitpicky here, Epic Games’ platform-launching mega-hit actually came out back in 2017, as mentioned above. And yet, to dub 2018—a year that saw this rising cultural juggernaut team up with Avengers: Infinity War, cover thousands upon thousands of children in its LOL-random-scented merch, and get its very own SNL sketch—as anything but “The Year Of Fortnite” would be the utmost of follies. The genius of Epic’s little money-making engine that could isn’t the bright, vibrant art style (it ripped that off of Blizzard), the one-against-the-world gameplay (which it lifted from PUBG, which stole it from somewhere else), or even its novel fort-building conceit (which it self-cannibalized from its far-less-lucrative game of origin). No, Fortnite’s real claim to brilliance is its business model, which invited young players into its world for free, then showed them the wonders available to holders of its rapidly iterating season passes. There are more sinister ways to run a business than “give something good away for free, then charge for cosmetic bonuses”—really, it’s just what less-predatory mobile developers have been doing for years. And yet there’s still something dispiriting about how easy it was to get players (especially younger players) hooked on Fortnite’s regular doses of achievement-scoring dopamine. Fortnite isn’t just a game—it’s a culture, and it’s hard to beat those when it comes to raking in the cash.
Other notable 2018 titles: As multiple people have presumably already jumped down into the comments to scream at us over, 2018 was also the year of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games’ most deliberate attempt yet to transcend its fart joke origins and make something approaching Actual Art. (They succeeded, for what it’s worth.) Meanwhile, Sony Interactive managed to redeem God Of War’s Kratos, of all people, while Super Smash Bros. Ultimate made the Switch even more essential than it already was. And with Celeste and Return Of The Obra Dinn both making the case for the continued thriving nature of the indie scene (now more available than ever, courtesy of console releases on the aforementioned Switch), it was really an amazing, winning year for games that still didn’t make even a fraction of the cultural impact that Fortnite did. [William Hughes]
Something funny happened on the way to 2019: Games stopped ending. Sure, you’ll get your occasional self-contained single-player experience—From Software’s excellent Sekiro, or the more recent The Outer Worlds, both leap immediately to mind. But while great games have operated on the edges (more on that in the notable mentions section, and in our separate end-of-year coverage coming next month), the majority of the oxygen in the room is suddenly being consumed by games that came out years before, either in the form of direct sequels (The Division 2, Borderlands 3), or just extended content for older titles like Bungie’s Destiny 2. Hell, even the biggest innovation in game genres to emerge this year, the rampantly popular auto chess format, is an outgrowth of a massively downloaded mod for a game that’s now several years into its run.
Games-as-service is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in conversations about this phenomenon, but the practical upshot is that it’s suddenly very hard to be seen as a success in this industry unless people are still playing your game six months after it originally came out. (R.I.P. Anthem.) Despite our ranting in the above entry, this isn’t entirely Fortnite’s fault, but it’s undeniable that having a hooked playerbase for a world full of existing assets is a far rosier prospect for the business-minded than building a new universe from scratch every time a fresh development cycle comes along. This trend isn’t going away, any more than the games themselves; sure, the announcement of a new console generation next year is likely to shake things up, but it’s hard to imagine companies giving up the easy luxury of endlessly patching existing worlds, when building new ones has always been such a risk.
Other notable 2019 titles: And yet that risk is still being taken, sometimes to magnificent effect. 2019 is, after all, the year of Death Stranding, one of the most ambitiously weird titles in recent memory, as well as the twin Outer W- pleasures of Outer Wilds and The Outer Worlds. Apex Legends and Tetris 99 proved that even in the games-as-service space, innovation can still happen, while Baba Is You, Disco Elysium, and Dicey Dungeons all made their mark on the indie scene. If exciting innovation is only happening on the margins, then the margins have never been a more exciting place to live; this decade can lay claim to some of the best video games of all time—sometimes despite themselves—and the momentum of the medium sees no signs of letting up as we round the corner into 2020 and beyond. [William Hughes]