It’s been an eventful decade for PC games, and it would be hard for you to summarise everything that’s happened in the medium across the past ten years. Hard for you, but a day’s work for us. Below you’ll find our picks for the 50 greatest games released on PC across the past decade.
2010-2019: the decade’s greatest PC games
A few notes on the selection process before we begin. First: if it was released on PC in the past decade, it is eligible for inclusion. We don’t care if it’s initial release was in the decade prior on console, or if it was released in Early Access or similar prior to 2010. Our goal is to offer you a collection of great and diverse games, not to quibble over technicalities.
For this same reason, we have only picked one entry from each game series. Many of the games in this list have phenomenal prequel or sequels, but we could only include so many games before our fingers grew tired from writing.
Finally, we do not care about importance or influence. There are many groundbreaking games and genre progenitors from the past ten years that you will not find on this list. In some instances we have selected one of the games that followed in their footsteps. We have done this because we prefer these games more. This list is, ultimately, entirely subjective.
And yet objectively correct. If your favourite game is not included, know that it is at number 51. Yes, even though this list is not numbered and is in chronological order. Please consider writing an impassioned celebration of your favourite game in the comments below, so that you might convince others to give it a try. Now, hop to the next page to begin the list.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Mass Effect is arguably the flagship of BioWare’s “decisions in this game affect future ones!” brand of RPGs. A shooty squad action game rather than turn based fantasy, this middle instalment in Commander Shepard’s epic sci-fi adventure provides you with aliens to smooch, friends to reunite with, and high concept shenanigans to have.
Alice Bee: Mass Effect 2 will always be the ultimate Mass Effect for me. The combat controls were a massive improvement on the original, and putting Shepard in the employ of a shady independent company gave an extra frisson to the Y/N moral choices you make in a Mass Effect game. But playing Mass Effect 2, in the very specific context of having played the first Mass Effect, was an experience that no other game has equalled since. Maybe that’s too much to ask of other games, though.
When I played Mass Effect, it was at the behest of my university housemate, who’d already played both. He told me to tell him when I got to the mission in Mass Effect 2 where you recruit the sniper Archangel, so he could sit in and watch my reaction. Reader, when Archangel took off their helmet, I nearly fell off my chair with joy.
Alice0: The first Mass Effect made the galaxy feel big. Mass Effect 2 made it feel alive, and made me realise why — and for who — I was fighting to save it. What good friends.
Sin: Years before I invaded RPS, I made a novelty Twitter account that posted alternative endings to Mass Effect 3, which I still haven’t played. Shockingly, everyone loves Mordin and everyone loathes Miranda (jokes about Thane being a sex pest, Morinth and Jack being teenagers, or Grunt eating Jacob’s many pets were a mixed bag). But I hated Mordin at first. Then I did his loyalty mission, and in that short level he became the complex character such a huge storyline deserved. Having Wrex, the best character in the whole series, welcome me as his old friend, only made the whole thing more perfect.
I’ve not played it for many years but I remember all these names, their real characters, and the ones I made up. RPGs needed Mass Effect 2.
Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 (2010)
The first fresh civ game of the decade, 2010’s Civilization 5 – complete with its transformative Gods & Kings and Brave New World expansions – arguably set the high water mark for the series to date. As ever, Civ 5 was about taking a human population from the age of fistfights in sheds made of bone, right through to spaceman times, via the foundation and development of cities, the research of new technologies, and the knackering of other peoples’ cities through war.
Nate: Despite having plenty of love for the games to either side in the series (Graham still reckons 2005’s Civ 4 is better), something about Civ 5’s iteration on uncle Sid’s original recipe, especially once it had all its DLC in place, was magic. It enjoyed the perfect combination of being absolutely massive in scope “it’s all of human history, and you’re driving it”, while presenting itself in a way that was intuitive and easily comprehensible – and not just by the benchmarks of the strategy genre. It was even pretty, in a way that holds up well 10 years later.
True, It didn’t reinvent too much of the classic formula, but the changes it did make – hexifying the formerly square-based world of Civ, and complicating war by allowing only one fightsperson per map tile – were perfect choices. Most so-called “4X” games (it stands for eXclaim, eXcoriate, eXtreme, and X-men) since Civ 5 have used these design decisions as founding principles, so there really is a solid case for calling it a genuine game changer.
I’ve played Civ 5 more than any other game on Steam by a margin of hundreds of hours (Civ 6 is my runner-up), and I couldn’t ask much more from it. In fact, at this point, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a better iteration on the premise at all, without completely reinventing it. And in fact, total reinvention is what I want to see from the next decade of 4X games – let’s see something new.
Alice0: I like when I escape world-ending war by making enough high-quality television shows that everyone declares I’ve won history so they can stay home and watch my content.
One of the earliest examples of the platformer-with-a-twist genre. In VVVVVV, you can’t jump, but instead you can reverse gravity to flip your character back and forth between the floor and ceiling – an act illustrated by the zig-zagging lines of its hard-to-pronounce name. Released on January 11th 2010, it’s also the oldest game on this list.
Graham: VVVVVV feels like being grabbed in a bear hug by videogames. It wraps its big warm Spectrum game art hands around you, flashes its pixelated half-moon smile, and broadcasts relentlessly upbeat chiptune music into your ear. It’s so clearly in love with the games – specifically the legacy of British computer games – that the hug is welcome rather than uncomfortable. You don’t even mind that VVVVVV is also standing on both your feet, crushing your toes.
VVVVVV is a hard platformer, but it’s not cruel. Or, wait, that’s not right. The opposite. It’s cruel but not hard. Frequent checkpoints and instant restarts mean you can brute force your way through its many varied challenges without too much difficulty and zero frustration, but the game uses this as an opportunity to be cheeky. I’d enter a new area and laugh and curse at the same time. “You prick!”, I’d shout, delighted at what the game was expecting of me. And when I’d achieve it, I’d feel amazing. VVVVVV was one of the first puzzle-platformers to hit it big, and nearly ten years later, I reckon it’s still one of the best.
Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
After Bethesda bought up and revived Fallout as an Elder Scrolls-y first-person RPG, for a follow-up they turned to Obsidian Entertainment, a studio founded by folks who worked on the original game. Obsidian took us to the wasteland around Las Vegas with casinos, slavers, The King, a cyborg dog, and Chandler off Friends.
Dave: I’ve never wanted to punch a character more than when I played Fallout: New Vegas. The game begins with the no-good double crossin’, 50s impersonatin’ Benny attempting to execute you, and it was a slight that I could never get over. When I found him in the game several hours later, he was trying to be chummy, with all the suaveness that Matthew Perry could ever muster. I still hate him.
It’s the effect that good storytelling can have, and New Vegas has it in spades. It also has bags more character than Bethesda’s grim post-apocalypse, thanks to the Mojave Desert being more alive, and more stuffed with imaginative weirdness, than the Capital Wasteland ever was. Take Benny’s gang, for example, a bunch of desperately cool lads wielding flick knives and giving it the old “Now listen, see!” come on. Or the White Glove Society, flouncing around in black tie and opera masks. And, of course, the brigade of lunatic fascists pretending to be Ancient Romans.
Sure, New Vegas has its problems, like all RPGs do, but at the time it really showed what Obsidian could do with an open world. It’s something special to see the neon lights of New Vegas shining down on unsavoury gangster types, and a desert full of savage beasts and extremely ill advised historical reenactors following a man calling himself Ceasar. His real name is Edward. Incredible.
Portal 2 (2011)
The sequel to The Orange Box’s surprise hit first-person puzzler drags us deeper into sciencehell to once again escape a malevolent AI. Accompanied by new friends we learn more of what happened at Aperture Science as we warp through portals and spray new highly scientific gel. Much as the original Portal was inspired by student game Narbacular Drop, Portal 2’s gels draw from Tag: The Power of Paint. And yes, this one ends with a song too.
Alice Bee: Much as I loved the first Portal, I feel the sequel really picked up the potato and ran with it. And I’m sure others will wax lyrical about the new puzzles and the bouncy moon goop, or the co-op levels (excellent and infuriating in equal measure), I want to shout out the voice acting.
Stephen Merchant’s performance as Wheatley really begs the question “Why doesn’t Stephen Merchant do more voice acting?” His chirpy little eyeball robot, created specifically to be an idiot, is the perfect foil to terrifying bondage AI GLaDOS. And GLaDOS herself, voiced by Ellen McLain, must surely be one of the most iconic antagonists in video games at this point. The dearth of actually funny video games proves that it’s very difficult to make video games funny, and yet Portal 2 manages to have two very funny characters. That they are also both menacing seems an impossibility. And yet!
I actually have a tattoo of a companion cube on my thigh. That’s not even a joke. That’s real. It has a text ribbon that reads “AD LUNAM”, which is, in fact, a reference to the end of Portal 2.
Graham: The first Portal was such a perfect three-hour dose of novel puzzle-solving that a sequel seemed unnecessary, but it turns out that making a great thing longer and funnier is justification enough to return to the well.
Once you add in the co-op levels however, Portal 2 becomes both necessary and essential. Working through its puzzles with a friend was challenging and delightful in new ways, and adds the brain-melting twists that I didn’t get from the bouncy paints. Also you can make the robots high-five, and that’s nice.
Alice L: Portal was my gateway to Valve, and also the reason why I’ve become so very hooked on puzzle games over the past years. Portal 2, though, really is my favourite of the pair. Maybe because it’s longer, or has more fleshed out characters, or maybe because of the aforementioned Stephen Merchant. There’s no one thing that makes it, but it’s still one of my all time favourite games to replay. And boy, Caroline and the sad turrets get me every damn time.
It’s a game I’ve always asked new friends if they’ve played, but it doesn’t really matter what the answer is because I’ll always ask if they want to play it co-op. It’s a true test of friendship, and luckily, no matter how many times I’ve replayed levels, I reliably forget most of the solutions. But Portal 2 also has a life beyond the original release. This year I’ve been playing community test chambers with a pal on stream, and it’s so much fun figuring out brand new puzzles.
When I was on Tinder, I had Cave Johsnon’s lemon rant as my bio for a while. I had numerous people ask me what I was talking about and why I hated lemons so much. Someone, once they were told it was from Portal 2, said we should play it naked together some time. That doesn’t even make sense. Wearing clothes has no bearing on puzzle solving competence. But really, what the actual fuck?
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim (2011)
Bethesda’s open-world RPG series trots off to the icy Norse north to shout at people so hard they fall off cliffs. Plough through quests, follow people about their daily business, try to steal everything, murder NPCs you take a dislike to, set up a home, get married, or just wander the wilds. It’s a large snowy sandbox to play in, and the possibilities are particularly wild thanks to the many and varied mods players are still making.
Sin: Skyrim is flawed. It’s clumsily written. It barely improved over its predecessor’s worst bits. It’s unwieldy and annoying. It’s still irresistible. You have to mod it, really, and once you start modding Skyrim, you may never stop. But gosh, what a world. No, it’s not as alien and original a world as Morrowind. Yes, the artificial life feels less alive than some much older games. Yes, I complain and fuss and nitpick but that’s because there’s almost nothing that can really beat Skyrim at what it does. I love living in its world, to the point where I spent months writing a diary about it for my own amusement, never even doing much besides walking around picking flowers, hunting, and making up stories about what I saw.
I have never fought a dragon or looked at the map. My character doesn’t have a magical real time map, see, and she can’t teleport back to town. She’s a person and she walks. She can’t reload the game if she dies, either. She makes medicine and she likes giants. She lives in Skyrim. Sometimes I visit her.
Alice Bee: I worked in a Gamestation (RIP) when Skyrim came out, and I and all my friends got a copy because it went on offer for about £20. It was that trailer, wasn’t it? That music. It’s still an extremely good trailer. I went back to watch it for this article and now I want to play Skyrim again. It was the first RPG that convinced me of the benefits of being a sword-and-board warrior rather than a dramatic mage. It just felt right to hit things with a sharp bit of metal, in the cold, unforgiving North.
Bethesda games are some of the best at creating an entire world and then making you the only competent one in it. You really feel special, because nobody else is capable of doing so much as deliver a note. And honestly, the first time I got to do a proper Dragon shout in the game, and yell a wolf over a cliff, it did live up to the hype. Plus now you can replace all the dragons with trains from Thomas The Tank Engine.
Matt: I downloaded a mod called ThuuMic that let me actually yell dragon shouts, then gleefully Fus-Roh-Dah’d a goat off a mountain. Videogames peaked that day.
Dave: Sorry, I’m afraid nothing is more terrifying and hilarious than modding majestic mountain hermit dragon Alduin into Macho Man Randy Savage.
Nate: I always like fighty, first-person RPGs in principle, but in practice I almost always get bored with them really early on. There comes a point where, no matter how well a world is built, I can infer pretty much all the boundaries I haven’t already spotted, whether they happen to be the limits of the game’s physical world, the variation built into its mechanics, or the range of sensations elicited through play. With Skyrim, it took me an extraordinarily long time to reach that point.
And in all honesty, given that I’ve not played in four years at this point, I feel like I could do it all over again. I won’t bother with alchemy this time though: what an absolute dog spleen of a mechanic. And so begins the train of thought where I remember absolutely everything that was busted or pointless about Skyrim, and somehow end up only wanting to play it more.
Alice L: Skyrim was the first Elder Scrolls game I ever played, and now I’ve bought at least five different versions of it and my social media handle is a reference to Mjoll the Lionesses sword. It’s ok. I love it.
Katharine: My super stealthy elf warrior is still stuck in one of Skyrim’s many caves to this day, and I don’t think she will ever leave. Mostly because she picked up every cup, goblet, sword, barrel, book, axe, shield and other assorted ‘things that might be worth something’ in the last town and now she’s acutely overencumbered. She walks at a snail’s pace, and the cave doesn’t seem to ever end. But it’s nice down in the cave. Mushrooms grow on the walls, and herbs bloom underfoot. I imagine she’s built herself a shack out of all those chairs and table legs she’s nicked, because hey, who needs to fight horrible dragons when you can live forever in your underground prison grotto?
Alice0: I do not like Skyrim but I did enjoy shouting a full banquet spread for twelve into a king’s face. And the sexy mod adventure with Cara when a dragon attacked our big-dick bath house
FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
A lone loyalist Federation spaceship flees across the galaxy chased by the rebel fleet in this roguelikelike tactics game. Jaunt across solar systems, upgrade your ship with new facilities and weapons, recruit new crew, complete sidequests, and get into a whole lot of real-time spacebattles. Win or lose, within an hour you can start a whole new escape with a new ship, a new galaxy, and a new set of encounters and obstacles ahead.
Nate: If I’m being honest, it’s FTL that sold me on the concept of the roguelike. Or whatever it is you want to call a game where you have to get through a semi-random series of obstacles, improvising success from the things you find, and having the slate wiped clean when you die. It’s replayability incarnate; a game that is, by definition, more about the journey than the destination.
Something which earned my particular respect was FTL’s ability to entice me into hours and hours worth of further replays, purely to earn the option to start with different types of spaceship. I never, ever bother with collectibles in games, but here, I was willing to go to extraordinary lengths (surviving the game in the Engi B hull, for a start, not to mention the faff involved in unlocking the Crystal ship), just to win… more ways to replay the game. Once I had them all, I stopped and never returned, but I think it’s fair to say I got my seven quids’ worth in the process.
Hotline Miami (2012)
Hotline Miami is the inspiration for the past seven years of ultraviolent shooters with stylised looks and rude ‘tude. At the bidding of messages left on our answering machine, we head into the neon night to murder mobsters in shorty, punchy levels. It’s a stealth puzzler as much as top-down shooter, a game of fast deaths and faster resets until everything comes together in a murderplan as slick as the floors now covered in your enemies’ viscera.
Graham: Other games use pounding synthwave beats as an aesthetic, but the music in Hotline Miami is essential. It’s the music which scores your murderous dance, setting a rhythm for each door kicked open, each head caved in, each knife tossed into a thug’s chest. You try, you die, you try again, but the music binds each fleeting life together so that it doesn’t feel stop-and-start.
Instead, you’re propelled through its small levels until you’re an unstoppable force. You know where the enemies are, where they’ll go, and your foreknowledge makes it look as if you have superhuman reflexes. The way every other character talks about John Wick in the John Wick films? They could be talking about you in Hotline Miami.
There is a sequel, which tips the story further into edgelord territory and makes the levels larger and more frustrating. The original is still the best, and none of the videogame nasties that followed it get close.
Crusader Kings 2 (2012)
Any fool can lead an army to victory in a strategy game but it’s more of a challenge to win a war while also plotting to off your brother-in-law so your bastard son can claim their throne, foiling assassination attempts against you, sewing heresy to weaken the religion of rivals, surviving the Black Death, and amassing a concerning number of cats. Such is Crusader Kings 2, Paradox’s strange and complex medieval dynasty-building strategy game.
Sin: I’m the angry queen who united Ireland, and I liberated this bit of France from the Almoravids. The Pope said it’s mine now. Sure my entire army was only about 1,800 men – barely 2% of the crusade – but we got here first, we led the charge, because I’m all about that Godly biz, and my friend in the Vatican knows how it is. So you can all just shut up and send your peasants to put down this rebellion for me, alright?
I’m the beleaguered king of Castille, surrounded by numpties who keep starting petty wars against each other’s tiny kingdoms, inviting 20,000 angry Muslim soldiers from the South to come up and take even more of Iberia. My court swells yearly with useless, often malevolent nobodies who refuse to serve in any court that isn’t Catholic, but will happily plot against me unless I marry them off to toothless octogenarians on the other side of the world. My surviving daughter, the inbred twin dwarf, is conspiring against me so ineptly that nobody has joined the plot for years, and I pity her too much to intervene. My hyper-intelligent Georgian wife is definitely going to kill me but in the meantime she might help me do a slight child murder so that our grandchildren will eventually inherit the whole of Aragon. I am 28 years old.
I’m the gay countess of… honestly, even I forget. At this level, you can simply disappear into the Holy Roman Empire and not even understand whose armies are marching around your land if you’re busy. Like actively recruiting as many gay, dwarf, disabled, or any other characters who seem like they’re getting a crappy deal to my court, for no real reason but to see what happens. Until someone kidnaps my infant son, and my life becomes a mission to turn my castle of small, tired lesbians into a device that can somehow kill a duke and get away with it. Nobody gets that big without making enemies. I just have to find them.
Crusader Kings 2 is a behemoth. An enormous, sprawling mess of simulated political events and people even on its original release; it’s a whole field of rabbit holes now that it’s on its twelve thousandth slice of optional DLC. I only ever had a couple of those though, and that’s more than enough for it to consume me. No game has ever brought the personality so well into politics, let alone war, and all this on a ridiculous scale? It shouldn’t be possible.
It works because it’s about machinations. Whatever level of authority your character is at, you will be plotting something. You don’t have to be a child murdering bastard at all, but sooner or later it will happen. Bringing three kingdoms together in peace through a savvy betrothal of an obscure prince? Surely that’s worth one tiny little shove off a rooftop. He’d have probably died soon anyway. Pox, or something. Right? Right. It’s fine. I’m the king, after all. There couldn’t possibly be consequences for this 20 or 40 years from now.
Nate: As Sin has demonstrated, CK2 is one of those games, like my beloved Dwarf Fortress, which it’s virtually impossible to talk about without segueing into a story of something that happened to you in the game. It’s the same sort of urge that leads you to want to talk about your dreams, only in this case, other people have a shared frame of reference, and so will usually enjoy hearing about it. You don’t really get “good” at CK2, so much as you get better at knowing what levers to pull to make it tell stories. In fact, you could even argue it was better at being a toy than a game, which in my opinion, is a much harder goal to achieve.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)
The venerated turn-based tactical series X-Com returns in a friendlier form from Firaxis to fend off a new alien invasion. Build up your base, research new technologies, recruit and train your forces, and send out squads to mash the moonmen. Battle by battle, level by level, your organisation grows in power and tactical know-how to surpass the escalating invasion – up until your prize sniper misses a crucial shot and sets off a cascade of failures and then what do you do, wiseass?
Nate: The original-original XCOM, 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown, is one of the most fiercely beloved, zealously defended games in strategy history. Everyone who played it and loved it (and yes, I was among them), feels a need to constantly attest to this fact, a bit like how people from Yorkshire constantly have to bring up the fact they’re from Yorkshire. As such, Firaxis rocking up eighteen years later with a remake was a bold move, akin to someone showing up in a Wakefield deathpub and casually announcing a nearby industrial estate as “the sequel to Yorkshire”. XCOM 2012 should, by all rights, have fallen flat on its face, a monument to hubris. But it didn’t: it nailed it.
In fact, it was so good, it revealed a lot of crap about XCOM 1994 that I would have previously howled myself hoarse in defending as genius. Turns out fourteen people in a squad was… too many! Turns out the tech tree was… completely broken, to the point where beelining heavy plasma was all that mattered! Half the equipment wasn’t worth using! Inventory management was hell! XCOM 1994 was still a great game, but XCOM 2012 showed us what we never knew we needed to see: the same principle, executed without any of its glaring errors. It was as if my love for XCOM was a child, raised with lead weights sellotaped to every limb, and the tape had finally been cut. I’m not sure what this simile was setting out to do, so let’s just agree that XCOM 2012 is an extraordinarily muscular child.
Sin: I disliked this, but my god didn’t it prove us right? Prior to this game, all we had was terrible UFO clones and third rate, vague successors, while legions of us insisted that turn based tactical games should be revived, and a competent modern XCOM would be huge.
We’re now eight years on from Firaxis taking the plunge, and this bold, hyper-competent not-remake is still the constantly imitated standard for a thriving subgenre of tactics and strategy games. It may have taken an approach that alienated some of us, but it gained far more in terms of reaching people and covering new ground. If you can’t respect what XCOM achieved, even if you didn’t like it, I honestly don’t know what to say.
PlanetSide 2 (2012)
There’s a planet, see, and there are sides. Two. Three future armies wage eternal FPS war over an alien world, capturing and defending and recapturing bases out outposts. Death is a mere inconvenience, and however badly you’re doing, it probably won’t matter that much because there’ll be dozens, hundreds, occasionally thousands of others to make up the difference. Bored of being infantry? You can vwum up a tank or aircraft at any time, too.
Sin: PlanetSide 2 is huge. Two factions are fighting over a base. Hundreds of players on each team form a brutal meatgrinder, inexorably taking more ground over the course of several hours. Outside the building, aircraft prowl, tanks circle, and soldiers cautiously skirmish. Terran reinforcements roll down from distant hills, but the convoy is distracted by a savvy handful of Vanu infantry, who know they’ll die and have to respawn miles away, but will keep those tanks from reaching the important battle for a vital 15 minutes. In the West, a lone New Conglomerate player quietly parks an APC, and over the next ten minutes it becomes the locus for a hundred-strong invasion.
Miles away, 12 players skirmish over a minor outpost. Two engineers chat while repairing an empty base as their friend practices piloting. An infiltrator harasses a trio of scouts in the wilderness. 50 more players are fighting a tank battle in the mountains, while an organised commando team runs in to open a second front.
PlanetSide 2’s pretty landscapes, jetpacks, cloaks, mechs, alien hovertanks and purple spandex are important. They liven up what could be po-faced modern snorefare. But the scale of its shooting, flying and quadbiking make it genuinely spectacular, and its room for megabattles and tiny 2-person dramas out in the sticks make for a simply unmatched experience.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)
20 years on, Counter-Strike still has terrorists and counter-terrorists throwing down in largely the same way. The multiplayer tactical first-person shooter has settled into a near-final form, like football. Even adding or rebalancing a single weapon at this point can be a huge change. Valve’s ongoing updates focus on prettying-up, fine-tuning, and metagame incentives like battle passes and weapon skins because, well, what would you even do to CS? Good ol’ CS.
Graham: Counter-Strike was first released as a mod in 2000, and it defined the future of games. Early access games? Games as a service? Counter-Strike was early proof for the benefits of both back before either had a name. Then consider: Steam’s development started as a project to more smoothly distribute Counter-Strike patches.
Global Offensive, meanwhile, offered only a set of marginal improvements over the base game. There were a couple of fun new modes, a handful of (mostly inferior) new maps, and prettier re-creations of the classics. It turns out that’s all Counter-Strike needs to stay relevant for a second decade. The Deagle, AK47, M4A4 and AWP are still four of the finest things to shoot in any first-person shooter. It still has more great maps than any other multiplayer shooter in history – my favourites are still those that are asymmetrical, like Militia and Assault.
I enjoy the meta-structure Valve have added as part of their modern stewardship, and I have paid real money for access to upgradeable badges and so on. But I will still more often than not ignore the competitive servers in favour of joshing about like it’s still 2002, only now I’m not running up an expensive phone bill on a 56k modem.
In the depths of a desert cave, the legend says, a great treasure awaits. Just head down. And down. And down, through the many biomes of this roguelikelike platformer. Items, enemies, secrets, and your own damn foolishness come together to form a satisfying system with many emergent surprises and even more deaths. Following the original free release in 2008, this is the fancy remake which came to PC in 2013.
Graham: Probably the greatest game ever made, in this decade or any other?
Spelunky places the broad, messy design ethos of the roguelike genre into the crucible of a Mario-like platformer, and boils it down into a set of simple, predictable rules. Bats ascend towards you at the same angle every time, frogs always hop the same fixed distance, and the procedural generation remixes levels from templates that quickly become familiar. The game lulls you. You’ll look at a screen of Spelunky and think, ah yes, I know what to do here. I can master this.
The alchemical miracle of Spelunky is that this boiling away has not stripped the game of any of the surprise, variety, or feeling of improvisation that makes roguelikes so rewarding. Because physics, and your own fumbling control – two things typically missing from turn-based roguelikes – adds all the chaos that’s required.
All you need to do is bomb through this wall, right? But you don’t spot the rock nearby, and the explosion launches it directly at your head. Game over.
All you need to do is descend this long fall and you’ve got the cape item that lets you do so safely. But you don’t spot that rock on a jump pad, being punted into the air over and over, and it knocks you out of the air as you float over it. Then it hits you again, and again, as you lie there unconscious, till you’re dead. Game over.
These deaths can strip you of an hour or progress, but for all the dismay they cause, they don’t frustrate. They are wholly fair consequences of the game’s many systems interacting with one another. You could have accounted for that rock and it is your fault alone that you did not.
Plough on and you will be rewarded, over and over, with new areas, with secrets, with new items which make you feel briefly powerful, briefly safe, until another rock kills you. Each new discovery slots into the game’s deadly, delightful, and perfect machinery.
Sin: Even I like Spelunky.
Deadly Premonition (2013)
When a popular young woman in a small Pacific Northwest town is murdered, an FBI agent arrives to investigate her death and its possible connection to a string of murders. Yes, that does sound familiar. This mystery plays out in an open-world daily life RPG with a kick of survival horror. First released on consoles in 2010, it came to PC with a god-awful janky port in 2013.
Alice0: Deadly Premonition is a game where exhaustion and hunger may mean you need to sleep on a camp bed in a graveyard then wake up to scoff can after can of green tomatoes stolen from the keeper’s shack.
Deadly Premonition is a game where you can get a part-time job at the supermarket, shuffling storeroom boxes in Sokoban puzzles to earn loyalty discounts.
Deadly Premonition is a game where our character interrupts long drives to talk with his imaginary friend about punk rock and Richard Donner movies. His imaginary friend may be us, the player.
Deadly Premonition is a game where you often need to drive long distances in a car which controls like a whale and goes 50mph. If you crank the siren it’ll hit a speedy 55, though the excitement will slowly push your pulse up to dangerous levels. However, you can buy identical copies of other characters’ cars.
Deadly Premonition is game where NPCs follow such fixed routines and are so unreactive that you can ram their car with your identical copy of their car and they will keep on driving straight ahead.
Deadly Premonition is a game where you can peep through windows to spy on people. You do not need to. The FBI pay you a bonus for peeping. It has hundreds of windows.
Deadly Premonition is one of the very few games to surprise and delight me with plot twists.
Deadly Premonition is a game which might resemble Twin Peaks in many ways, but is most notably Peaksian with melodrama. The characters are exaggerated and familiar, their stories silly, and their animations a limited set of stock poses and expressions. The soundtrack is a few ambient mood pieces which are often jarringly out of touch with the tone of a scene. I adore the cheery whistling.
Deadly Premonition is a game where the FBI will fine you a “stinky agent” penalty if you wear clothes for too long. You’ll need to build a wardrobe and send suits out for dry-cleaning.
Deadly Premonition is a game with bland combat and a truly awful PC port. Neither of these stop me.
Deadly Premonition is a real video game because it has a fishing minigame.
Deadly Premonition means more to my heart than any ‘prestige’ video game. I adore the melodrama – the characters, the absurdity of giant beds and tables, the obsession with coffee and snacking, the stock poses and out-of-place songs, the rigid way everyone follows their daily routine, how way dozens of unnamed NPCs are dismissed as unrelated to the case. It means more to me for being such a veneer of simulated life, for being so rickety, for having such wonky combat. I can’t love a glossy game but by god, I can fall for the underdog with a heart of gold.
If only it weren’t such a buggy port.
Dota 2 (2013)
The game that launched a thousand ragequits, Valve’s MOBA is the official continuation of the Warcraft III mod which also inspired League Of Legends. At this point I hope and trust enough people know about MOBAs that I don’t need to explain it’s a 5v5 competitive multiplayer game about wizards trying to ultimately destroy the other team’s base by fighting alongside AI-controlled armies, levelling up to unlock new skills, earning gold to buy items, killing each other to fuel that growth, and vying for map control to restrict the enemy’s safe space and battlefield knowledge, because lord knows such a description gets complicated.
Matt: For several years, Dota was my life. I’d sink into it every evening, gradually carving out my understanding of Valve’s ludicrously complicated wizard clicker. Anyone who describes anything except literal travel as a ‘journey’ should be sent straight to cringe-jail without a trial, but it’s hard for me not to look at Dota that way. By the time I’d emerged from nearly 4,000 hours of it, I was a different person.
It was best in the early days, I think. Not the early early days. Not those first couple of dozen games where nothing made sense, nor seemed like it ever would. Just past that. When I was over the first hump, and laughably believed I knew what I was doing. Then some more experienced Dota pals started talking about fundamental concepts I hadn’t even heard of, and I realised how many more mountains lay ahead.
You’ve heard of paradigm shifts? How our understanding of science occasionally revolts, old ideas are discarded, and our model of the world is brought closer to reality? Dota’s like that but with wizards.
Alice0: After hundreds of hours of Warcraft 3’s DotA mod I thought I’d got it out my system. Then Valve took that, rebuilt it, and have kept honing it for six years. I barely play anymore but when big updates come out to rewrite the rules which once carved new neural pathways in my brain, I’m once again lost in theorycrafting what it means for Dota. I no longer understand the game it has become, I’ll admit, but revisiting it just the other week I still adored it.
Papers, Please (2013)
When the country of Arstotzka warily reopens its border with former enemy Kolechia, we’re volunteered to man the crossing booth. Inspect travellers’ documents, stamp them approved or denied, and try to keep up as the unfolding political tensions mean crossing rules become more elaborate restrictive while travellers become more dangerous. Oh, and try to earn enough to keep your family alive.
Alice Bee: I love games that force me to write my own notes in IRL pen on IRL paper. For Papers, Please I ended up writing out my own versions of the complex rules, stamps and permits I needed to check, and sticking them around my screen. I was quite an efficient worker. But Papers, Please also throws moral dilemmas in front of you. You are fairly obviously working for a terrible police state, so should you let the freedom fighters over the border? What immediate cost will that have to you? What long term?
I was just doing my job, sure, but I also ultimately had an extraordinary amount of power. Which is why, in the end, I opted to let passport-less scamp Jorji through, after repeated attempts. I had to respect his positive mental attitude.
Papers, Please is the sort of game where you things get a lot easier if your mother-in-law dies.
Sin: Jorji is that one character in Papers, Please who comes to your booth every day, and tries to cross the border with no papers. Each time the rules change, he comes back a day later to make a new attempt, each more silly than the last. He provides a much needed levity, but also he’s a brilliant gauge for how your humanity is doing. It’s always so tempting to let him in even at your own expense, because he’s such a cheerful delight, but the longer it goes on, the more paranoid you get that somehow he is the one – he is the worst of them, and if you let him in he will do something truly awful.
But I want to let him in. Even though it will cost me. Even though it’s not just breaking the stupid, authoritarian rules, but the useful, sensible ones. Hell, maybe because of all that. That’s your humanity. You must never silence it.
Alice0: All I want in life is a big stamp and lots of papers in need of stamping.
Cataclysm DDA (2013)
The zombie apocalypse hit, and then it got weird. This roguelike survival game sends us out into the end times to scavenge for supplies, fend off ever-stranger monsters, learn survival skills, and just try to live any way we can manage. But you’ll have a very different experience of the end of the world if you start out as an electrician or farmer instead of, say, an otaku or skater boy.
Sin: Cataclysm Colon Dark Days Ahead is a lot of things that I hate. It’s a roguelike about zombies with ASCII style, “learn 50 keyboard shortcuts” controls (with, admittedly, a robust set of easily-accessed tilesets). Plus survival requirements, a once vanishingly rare element that I coveted in games but now find mostly obnoxious.
I still play it every year. Cataclysm is a post apocalypse survival sim that tries to cram everything in, and it works. Want to gun down zombies? You can. Want to tool up and sneak into towns by night to steal beans? You can. Want to learn kung fu and karate an angry moose to death? You can. I invariably end up living in the woods, foraging for edible roots, bird eggs, and litter, gradually teaching myself to grow food and make clothes. But eventually, I’ll need an item I can’t fabricate. A spring, perhaps. And then it’s time to brave the monster-infested city. Or worse, a terrifyingly empty city, which surely has something lurking, waiting for a gullible fool to wander in for the free supplies. There are far worse things than zombies lurking in the infinite end of civilisation.
It has a billion cooking recipes and crafting items, to the point where ironically a kitchen sink is possibly the only thing in the game without a direct use. You can hunt and skin animals, and farm seeds into fibres for stitching your homemade leather into a fetish outfit, for reasons. You can reverse engineer and build your own cars. You can suffer horrible or beneficial mutations, or install cybernetic doodads in your body. You can form a faction that will farm and hunt while you’re away. Or you can relax for a few days, sitting at home with your stockpiled flour, smoked fish and dried fruit, to drink blueberry wine and read magazines from a decaying world.
Sometimes it’s harrowing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it’s exciting and dramatic, sometimes it’s fiddly and repetitive, and sometimes it’s peaceful and bizarrely pleasant. It’s all down to what you do with it.
Cataclysm DDA may never be finished – it’s an open source project updated constantly in small increments over many years. But it’s already incredible.
Explore the bars, alleys, schools, nightclubs, car parks, tunnels, and fish tanks of an alien city at night in this wonderful walking simulator. I don’t know who we are but why we’re here is clear: we’re going for a walk. Once you have enjoyed your walk, congratulations, you have won the game.
Alice0: Tip-tap tip-tap, here’s me, a friendly idiot, come to wander through your fine spacecity. What’s this room full of people and tables and bottles and noise? I love it! What are you doing up against the wall outsi- hey, you’re leaking yellow! Amazing! Why’s everyone in this room sat watching a small being holding brass tube- oh my god they make a noise, it’s fantastic. Is this a giant power generator? I probably shouldn’t be here, but it’s very impressive! How did I end up in this tunnel full of murderfast hovercars? They’re so close I could touch one, oh wow!
Bernband is the game of “I’m just happy to be here.” I don’t know the language, I don’t know the resident species, I don’t know local customs and social norms, I don’t know much of anything. And therefore everything is great. I’m a big rube as delighted by a greenhouse as I am a nightclub. I don’t know where I’m going, and am just as pleased if I end up in a classroom as if I find myself inside a fish tank. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.
I adore the sights and sounds of Bernband. Even the mundane is exciting and unfamiliar with blown-out neon lights and rumbling, warbling sounds that overpower my ears, and bustling crowds. It’s a world full of life, even if that life mostly considers me in the way.
I like that Bernband is not a single open world, but split into separate zones loaded in when we pass through lifts and tunnels. It’s a world of notable and interesting areas connected by jump cuts, feeding that feeling that I don’t know where I’m going and am unlikely to find my way back anywhere, I’m just happy to see what I find. This makes it a rare treat to realise I can see somewhere I’ve been before, or discover I recognise part of the route to my new favourite back-alley bar. I’ve had that experience as a tourist in so many cities. I’m just happy to be here.
Drift through a dream in this series of surreal and unpredictable vignettes with the feeling of falling asleep in front of late-night TV. Between title cards and video scenes, you might wander lost in foggy woods, chop food, run through the streets of an empty city, watch that city float away, fry an egg, discover the Moon inside your fridge, or rocket through space. Each playthrough picks a new selection of scenes, every night a new dream at 2:22am.
Alice0: 2:22am is a feeling too familiar, of being exhausted but unable to sleep, drifting through nights half-awake, in and out of dreams, falling asleep on the sofa, aimlessly wandering the city, staring at the fridge feeling I need to eat but just… ah y’know, it’s nice to realise that’s behind me. I still enjoy 2:22am for so wonderfully capturing that dreamlike feeling.
Dreams are not levels where you platform along a trail of blood. They are not coherent visions where every object and symbol can be read with a dictionary. Dreams are messy, dreams are fleeting, dreams are the mundane flowing into the unreal and back again, dreams are repetitive, dreams are revisited, and dreams are lost when you try to describe them.
2:22am is a series of vignettes. Blurry videos give glimpses of subway trains, boiling water in a pan, city streets, cherry blossoms, and fields. Sometimes we can wander, walking through an empty city or foggy woods, leaping through a meadow leaving a trail of sparkles, climbing a seemingly-endless ladder into the sky, or rocketing through space with fire out my arse. Or we’re locked into a view frying an egg in a pan, trying to catch pling-plonging light-up orbs in a mug, chopping vegetables with a knife coming dangerously close to our thumb, or digging a grave in the back garden. These are all excellent snippets of dreams and dream-like states, the familiar and fantastic coming together and it’s never clear what’s real. That’s the dreams I know.
What I most appreciate about 2:22am is how it revisits dreams and scenes across and between playthroughs. It’s a dream across days and weeks, the sort of exhausted state that feels like a prison. New scenes will shuffle in, and familiar ones might be slightly different. The tree and the moon proliferate, looming larger, perhaps a reminder of something terrible we’ve done – or just of a dream. I do not know. I do not care. It is not a dream to pick apart and perfectly understand. It is a dreaming state, and it is perfectly horrible. What an excellent horror game: one that by now feels like part of it has come from inside my head.
Two players duel to win the adulation of the crowd and the privilege of being devoured by a vast worm in this minimalist local multiplayer game. With one-hit kills and only a few moves, swordfighting may be simple but it’s artful and dramatic. Kill quickly, die often, and, above all else, try to style out your mistakes and put on a good show. After years exclusive to the indie party scene, Nidhogg finally got a home release in 2014.
Nate: Good god, Nidhogg’s a funny game. I despise fighting games, as they boil away all whimsy and narrative from a game, until all that’s left is a bitter, viscous contest of skill. I have little skill, and even less desire to calibrate it against the skill of others. But the utter frenzy of playing Nidhogg, the absolute, petty bastardry it drives people to inflict on each other, drives it right through that layer of humourless tar, into an ocean of shrieking, effervescent hysteria.
It’s funniest, of course, when both opponents are pathetic, but willing to play as dirtily as possible. You might crunch your geezer up into a comedy little turkey-looking sprite, for example, crouch-jumping your way around the place so your opponent can’t get a hit in. You might sprint away from your enemy at top speed, only to stop dead, flick a key and turn on the spot, ker-splunching them with your sabre. Last time I played, I was leaning back against a sofa full of people, and someone laughed so hard they farted right in my ear, then couldn’t stop doing it. I still won that round.
Alice0: Nailing someone with a thrown sabre is one of the greatest victories in video games.
Dave: Every person I have talked about Nidhogg to who hasn’t played it has asked the same question: “Why are you fighting to be eaten by a big snake?” I never have an answer for this.
But what I do say is that this is, at most, a minor detail. By the end of the session, the talk is always of that feint that won the game. That and, yes, the throwing of sabres.
NEO Scavenger (2014)
The world has ended once more, and just enough of humanity has survived to make it mighty unpleasant. You may awake in a cryosleep chamber in this hardcore turn-based survival RPG but the future’s not glamorous or exciting, it’s grim and it’s dirty. If you don’t die in a clumsy, desperate fight with another scavenger or a mutant then hunger, illness, or just the cold will likely take you. Good luck with the world of tomorrow.
Nate: Carrier bags. That’s what impressed me about NEO Scavenger: carrier bags. Everything about the game is set up to put the rules (I hesitate to say ‘realism’) first and your convenience second, and the inventory system is no exception. It’s really hard to progress past the point of lugging things you need around in your hands, and you’re lucky if you find two shoes, let alone clothes with pockets. But carrier bags which, when equipped, can allow one hand to carry a good couple of dozen squares’ worth of stuff, are your saviour. And in a development that pleases me more than I can adequately explain, they crumple up into balls that only take up one square of space when not equipped.
I guess they’re also emblematic of the hyper-impoverished, ultra-broken aesthetic of the game world, which would be unenjoyably bleak if it wasn’t so unfathomably hilarious. It’s just pure bathos to die of an infection, because the carrier bag containing your single antibiotic tablet split while you were running from a simpleton with a cudgel. Fallout and all the rest missed a trick by ever letting the stakes get higher than that.
Graham: NEO Scavenger isn’t all eating dirty mushrooms and pooping yourself to death in an abandoned car, though that is certainly one of its central pleasures. Scrape away at the top soil of survival mechanics and you’ll discover a well-written RPG underneath, including quests and NPCs and factions and more. You can approach the elements of these quests in different orders, so you don’t need to keep repeating the same steps after each death sends you back to the start. This makes it a joy to stumble off into the wilderness in a new direction, knowing that you might get caught in a light shower of rain and die of pneumonia, or that you might stumble into a cult, a cannibal fighting arena, or a bright futuristic city.
Also, if the above doesn’t sell you on it: this is a game in which you can choose a fighting character trait, and then beat a wolfman to death so thrillingly with your bare hands in the game’s opening moments that your character automatically collects the security camera footage of the fight for posterity.
With Those We Love Alive (2014)
What a dubious honour to be chosen as the personal artificer of a monstrous Empress in this Twine game. It’s a tired world, used-up and sad and accustomed to horror, and it takes its toll. The choices we make and the person we become aren’t safely confined to the game. At key moments, we’re prompted to mark events on our bodies by drawing symbols on our skin – our real meat skin.
Alice0: How fantastical this world of dreamdrinkers, princess spores, fermented jellyfire, and angels is. How cruel this world is. Everything is built upon suffering and exploitation. Here’s me near the top of that in a position of prestige, living in the royal palace and working directly at the Empress’s request. And I’m trapped, and I’ve had my self taken from me, and my crafting materials are trophies of other people’s suffering, and I am very so tired.
Everything’s tired. When I head into the city beyond, the people are used up and just hoping to get by. When their bodies give out, their minds are drained. Even if I craft a telescope to look to distant lands, those are ruined, wasted, or in conflict. Everywhere is strange and magical and full of wonders. Everywhere is awful.
I adore the tone With Those We Love Alive strikes through Porpentine’s vivid descriptions and Neotenomie’s excellent music. This would be thrilling if it weren’t all so awful. The tragedy and horror becomes mundane. Each day, I could go to all these places and see all these sights, but they’re all awful. The best I can hope for is sleep. The game is good to offer all these options each day knowing I’ll just end up in bed.
There is hope. A bit. A desperate hope. Maybe a fleeting hope, an impossible hope. But a hope. It’s worth clinging to.
Telling players to draw sigils on their actual real meat skin in response to key moments is such a clever idea. You wear your belief in who you are and what the world has turned you into. At first it’s fun to draw on myself but it gets grim. The first time I played, I lied a bit about who I was and what I would do in an awful situation. That sigil weighed heavy on my mind and my hand.
It is an awful world. Your mind can be taken from you and the dregs distilled for consumption. Whatever freedom you have is an illusion and you are pressed to worship your jailor. You will be missed only as a tool. Bodies are broken a thousand ways and stripped for parts, as you well know after imperial agents supply hair, heretic bone, and angel leather for your workshop. But for now, while those sigils last, at least you can see who you are.
While the marks have faded, With Those We Love Alive has lingered in the back of my head for five years now.
Secret Habitat (2014)
Explore a procedurally-generated island covered in procedurally-generated buildings which are procedurally-generated art galleries decorated with procedurally-generated wallpaper and containing procedurally-generated exhibitions of procedurally-generated art by procedurally-generated artists, with bonus procedurally-generated sound installations.
Alice0: It is good when the algorithm generates a gallery of genuinely pleasant pictures.
It is better when the name generated for a picture somehow evokes or supports it. Secret Habitat is a good serendipity generator.
It is best when you find a gallery of garbage with one shockingly incongruous picture, one picture which redeems this awful exhibition.
What I most like about what could be a fancy tech demo is how god damn spooky Secret Habitat is. What is this world covered in monolith-black art galleries? Who built this? Why? What are they trying to learn? Or do? Or replicate? Is this a success? Discovering this island feels like a threat. We were not meant to be here. We should feel afraid that we have received this attention.
I am very happy to be sprinting across a blasted landscape between art galleries, cooing and admiring procedurally-generated pictures before steeling myself for the next dash through the scouring wind. God help us.
Graham: A world of infinite art galleries filled with infinite procedural art sounds like hell, doomed to both ponderous and filled with noise. Secret Habitat avoids being ponderous by, as Alice says, letting you sprint. Moving between its art galleries happens at a joyful clip – you’re a big kid who loves art so much they can’t wait to see the next painting. It avoids being filled with noise by… being magic? All its paintings are abstract patterns, textures, fuzz, and yet again and again it throws up things that are good enough for me to screenshot. I don’t do anything with these screenshots, but I like knowing that they’re there, the generator’s work preserved. Ah, now my computer’s the art gallery, isn’t it.
80 Days (2015)
Jules Verne’s classic rip-roaring colonial gentleman’s adventure of travel and ill-advised gambling was given an update. In the process, Inkle created an exemplar of what text adventures can be. After betting that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days, Phileas Fogg sets out with you, his manservant Passepartout. From there you explore the twists and turns to be found in an alternate, steampunky version of 1872, by having conversations with strangers, learning something, and moving on. There are so many diverting side paths to follow, and many secrets to uncover, as you race against the ticking clock.
Sin: This is the one. This is the game I never hesitate to recommend. It’s the only game I’ve ever had on my phone. The traditional choose-your-own structure is modified so you choose the next sentence in the narration, playfully encouraging you to go for outcomes and events that aren’t good just because it makes for a more interesting story, and it never feels like punishment or failure.
Above all, of course, this is a wonderfully written myriad of possible stories. It’s a travel story about not just the physical size of the world, but the enormous variety of smaller worlds within it, be they cities, nations, ships, or individuals. Everyone has something going on, and only a tiny part of their world can briefly overlap with your own – and sometimes, as the white European servant of the rich, you’ll be challenged for assuming you can have more. Each playthrough is different. Different legs of your journey could be farcical, frivolous, seditious, warm, interesting, or heartbreakingly beautiful, but each is wonderful. 80 Days feels more like an adventurous journey than any game ever has.
Alice Bee: You can complete the journey in 80 Days in far less than 80 game days, but if you do that you’ve probably cheated yourself. There’s so much lying under the surface of this game. I advise you to take the scenic route.
Graham: The most human videogame, alternately about caring for your travel companion, and forging the world’s longest ‘missed connections’ list with the people you meet on your travels. Importantly, those people exist independently from you: you are not their saviour, and they will push back at any attempt to reduce them to a part of your tourism. There is nothing else like 80 Days in games.
Katharine: 80 Days is a constant surprise and delight. I’ll never forget the moment when, on my first playthrough, my beleaguered Passepartout woke up dazed and hungover (and I quote) “in the silks of an Ottoman harem girl” after an unexpectedly long night out on the town. This was Day 13 of my trip around the world, and I almost stood up and applauded the man for finally breaking free of his master Phileas Fogg’s old timer tyranny and actually going out and enjoying himself for once. That old fool can bloody well tie his own shoelaces for once in his life, damnit, and there is nothing he can do to stop me.
But as Graham’s just said, 80 Days is a game full of ‘missed connections’, which is precisely what makes it such a delicious and enticing trip every time I come to play it. This is one virtual holiday I never grow tired of, and there is no greater feeling in the world than returning to your favourite forks in the road and seeing where the paths less travelled might take you next.
Grand Theft Auto V (2015)
Aw shit, here we go again. Rockstar’s open-world crime ‘em up returned to Notcalifornia for more robbery, murder, heists, drama, capers, torture, and jaywalking – not forgetting grand theft auto, of course. It’s still the shiniest modern-day urban sandbox around, though Rockstar have since outdone themselves in ye olden days with Red Dead Redemption 2 and all its simulated heat-reactive horse scrotums. It has increasingly absurd multiplayer crimes galore in the GTA Online mode too.
Alice Bee: I never got into GTA Online, which shocking success will probably keep everyone at Rockstar employed for the next 20 years, but the singleplayer is still an absolute banger. I’ll ignore the extremely low ball parody aspects (it’s not like making fun of LA is fruit you have to reach particularly high for, after all) in favour of talking about how that version of LA feels so genuinely alive. It seems that the whole city will function entirely without any input from you. That farm will keep farmin’. That minimum wage fast food server will keep servin’. You can sit and watch the whole world go by. It’s enforced by how, when you switch between the three protagonists, the won’t be where you last left them – they go about their business paying no nevermind to you.
Alice0: I did get into GTA Online, slowly building my own crime empire upon heists, drugs, guns, and even a nightclub. Some of the multiplayer heists are cracking good fun but it’s still the world-watching I return for. I like to pop on a podcast and ride my BMX around, pulling sikk tricks through traffic and nudging the simulation. I’ll take my helicopter and follow crimes from a safe distance. Sometimes I’ll turn on the passive mode so I can get right up close to watch. Or I’ll roll out ready for war and get amongst it. And yes, I spend a lot of time and money on playing dress-up. If I played it intensely I’d be frustrated by all the grind, the ridiculous escalation of firepower across updates with murderous vehicles I’ll never afford, how it feels like it’s pushing players to spend real money for fake money to keep up, and the absurd loading times. Playing in bursts and spurts, I’m still having a grand old time in this daft crimeworld.
Disclosure: I have pals who work at Rockstar. It’s a hazard of living in Edinburgh.
Alice L: GTA V hooked me in ways I never thought it would. I wasn’t expecting to like a GTA game that much — it just doesn’t seem very me. And the online definitely wasn’t Getting run over and dragged through a car wash on my way to get my impounded car was not, as the kids say, the one. I also attempted to play a game of tennis with a friend once over a very shit internet connection, and all we saw of each other’s characters was them running off the court and away. But the single player? I love it. I’ve completed it several times now.
The Witcher 3 (2015)
Despite a rocky start, the RPG adaptations of Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novels blossomed in the third game as CD Projekt Red’s ability finally caught up with their ambition. It’s an open-world RPG starring a weary monster hunter who can’t help but get tangled in war, intrigue, and rebellion as he tries to reunite with his missing magical daughter who’s being hunted by supernatural forces.
Nate: I’ve played the first few hours of the Witcher 3 what feels like at least once a year, since its release. I’ve seen the sexy bath man and the naughty scorpion, and dealt with the griffon, and handled the angry well lady, and every time I think it’s going to be the time I finally carve out the time in my life a big open world story like this deserves to live in. The timing has never worked out, however, so it seems I’m cursed to play the first few hours, annually, until the end of time. It’s still worth it, to be honest.
There’s something about the sheer sincerity of the game’s worldbuilding – the way the griffon acts like a real animal, and in fact the way every monster has exhaustively catalogued habits and rules and qualities – that makes it really feel like it fully delivers on being a game about a monster hunter. I also love the colour palette, which is surprisingly brighter and more saturated than the often-muddy fare of open world environments. I do hope I get to spend more time admiring it, along with my old pal Gerald of Rivendell, before too long.
Alice0: I adore the subtleties and implications of Geralt’s many different weary sighs and looks. It’s a tired world and hope is hard to come by.
Video Matthew: I just love it for introducing us to the pop hit that is taking Novigrad by storm: Pam Pa Ram, Pam Pam Param.
Katharine: That, and the 700 hours of Gwent you played, Matthew.
Metal Gear Solid 5 (2015)
Decades of sneaking and monologuing climax in the final Metal Gear from Kojima Productions. It’s an open-world stealth game built of complex systems where you can masterfully distract and evade enemies with gadgets and gumption. It’s also a game where you abduct soldiers with big balloons to come live in your floating clubhouse, where your pet wolf can carry an electric knife, and where one of your greatest stealth tools is a talking inflatable model of yourself.
Sin: MGS5 called my bluff. At last, it’s the Hitman-ish series of loosely connected areas to faff around in, unencumbered by the atrocious writing and garbage plots of the rest of the series (well, once you’re out of the interminable intro sequence. And don’t recruit whatsherface. Just don’t. And skip the cut scenes, obviously. And oh god here I go.). And it’s pretty bloody excellent. The semi-structured stealth sandbox stabfest finally lets us loose to play with those clever details and just-complex-enough systems, even if you just want to play the same bit 20 times in a row to see how many ways you can do it. Messing with hapless guards has never been so entertaining and I fear it never will again.
Just don’t pay attention to the story, okay? Please. Ugh.
Alice0: See, I wish MGS 5’s story and writing did hew closer to previous games. At times it has the wonderful old mix of earnestly mixing the politics of war with full-on daftness but these moments are few and far between. I like that Metal Gear is both a decades-long Cold War conspiracy going hard on anti-war critique and a series where the world’s greatest soldier believes in Santa Claus and once used bioluminescent mushrooms to recharge thermal goggles through sheer force of belief in his own misunderstanding. Metal Gear Solid is at its best when earnest, serious, and ludicrous. The story is an unfinished mess and has some truly ghastly, hateful parts but I do like parts and just wish it had the more balanced and complete Metal Gear personality.
As a sandbox stealth game it’s an absolute treat, with so very many gadgets, techniques, and behaviours to exploit and abuse. Only the world’s greatest soldier would think to carry around a recording of someone squeezing out an awful poo so they can throw enemies off their trail by ducking into a portaloo then playing the tape out their Walkman, then order their pet wolf to stab the soldier with an electric knife, then attach a balloon to the fella to whip him away to join your secret ocean clubhouse and help topple the AI illuminati.
Are we talking about Ground Zeroes or The Phantom Pain here? Well, if you want Metal Gear stealth sandbox with less of the plotsprawl, mate, try Ground Zeroes. The standalone prequel is a small, focused, and more challenging murderbox that will reward you for learning the area well as it returns again and again for new missions.
I like Quiet as a pal in the field, mind. I’m less keen on what the story does with her but it’s nice for selective mute weirdos to find their people. And synchronised stealth takedowns with her feel oh so cool.
Graham: A game in which you can hide inside a box? Fine. A game in which you can pin a poster of a woman to the front of that box and prompt all the guards in a base to come ogle and applaud at said woman, before you pop out and slow motion shoot them all in the head with a silenced pistol? Art.
Video Matthew: I should probably disclose that I appeared in a Metal Gear documentary that came with the game. It stars Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn and me. But was I asked to also star in Death Stranding? No. Despite this slight against me I’ll be the bigger man and say that this is the greatest stealth game of all time.
Of all the games on this list, Undertale may be the only one to have inspired a wrestler’s ring entrance. In fact, Toby Fox’s gloomy cutey of an RPG has burrowed into pop-culture consciousness in a unique way. Perhaps it’s the way combat becomes a mixture of a text puzzle and a bullet-hell, perhaps it’s the cast of weird monsters, perhaps it’s that you can go on a date with a skeleton. Whatever the reason, Undertale left an impression.
Alice Bee: As observed by many, Megalovania is a fucking jam. But that aside, what I remember most from playing Undertale is thinking it was very clever. It seemed, even then, to be destined to be a game extremely loved in an extremely online way. Not memes, exactly, but a lot of texts posts starting “Here’s the thing you need to know about Undyne.” I think Undertale is cleverer than any amount of “In this essay I will-” jokes can give it credit for. But I liked it most when it was being funny or sweet. See: that date with the skeleton, in a date outfit that is a crop t-shirt saying Cool Dude.
Undertale has empathy. It has empathy in a way very few works of fiction do, and it’s up front about it. It’s not trying to trick you into be empathetic, it just wants you to be a nice person. When you start, you’re told killing monsters gets you EXP and that increases your LV. But at the end of the game you discover those stand for Execution Points and Level of Violence. You’re not supposed to kill anyone, you’re supposed to figure out the other options, because duh.
My surrogate parent monster at the start of the game refused to get out of my way, so I killed her. But then I immediately regretted it, and reloaded. But the game still knew. It knew what I did.
Cities: Skylines (2015)
The next great city management sim hope after EA’s latest SimCity bombed, Skylines turned out to be more a rather lovely city-building game. Skylines lets us plant cities, seeding asphalt and concrete to watch them grow and buzz with life. The city will largely take care of itself, but you can make weed and fertilise with policies and plans to make it truly shine.
Nate: It’s a rare and beautiful thing when a game comes along with the chutzpah to straight up steal the crown from the inventor of a genre. Or in this case, the chain of office. One spring night in 2015, Cities: Skylines rode in off the steppe, marched into the campaign yurt of old Mayor SimCity, and beasted off his head with one pleasingly-curved swing of his asphalt broadsword. The town council (I’m imagining them as a sort of extravagant royal court, dressed in flamboyant versions of municipal garb) cheered, for the Mayor had become bloated and corrupt in his old age, and had made many unpopular decisions, such as burdening his subjects with onerous DRM, and forcing them to do everything online. The time was right for a change, and despite having a name that rolled off the tongue like a brick made of fish hooks (I’m not a fan of double sibilance), Cities: Skylines was the game (Mayor? Barbarian? I’m losing this metaphor) for the job. With a simulation that wasn’t scared to be shallow where it needed to be for the sake of fun, a suite of features that made it easy to replan towns on the fly, and comprehensive mod support – not to mention those wonderful, wonderful roads – I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t hold on to the crown for a good long while. Also, this is a very funny sketch.
Graham: It’s all about the roads, isn’t it? SimCity offered an always off-balance set of scales, where adding a little more houses over here required a little more industry over there and so on, till the map was full. Cities: Skylines grabs that system wholesale, but really it’s the roads that hold my attention, from trying to design the perfect road network before placing a single building, to endlessly tweaking junctions and off-ramps for hours to try to reduce those downtown traffic jams. There is always more to do, and watching your ants scurry around your ant farm more efficiently is its own reward.
Alice L: God, I love Cities. I’m so, so, so incredibly bad at it, but I love it so much. I just can’t seem to deal with my trash effciently, and I always build so many roads to try and keep all the pollution away from my townsfolk that I just run out of money. Or sometimes, when I’m strapped for electricity, I have to bite the bullet and put down non-green energy. And to that I say: sandbox!
Invisible, Inc. (2015)
Conduct industrial espionage for fun and profit in this turn-based tactical stealth game from the makers of Mark Of The Ninja. Blessed with generous knowledge of enemy movements, try to thread the needle as your agents move through facilities and dodge guards as the security response escalates. Build and upgrade a stable of agents, steal new gear, and try not to lose them by getting greedy. But a shiny new crimetool is just the other side of this locked door…
Graham: Invisible, Inc. gives you perfect sight and perfect foresight. You know not only where the guards are, but where they’re going to walk to. Every route and vision cone is visible on the UI. It should be easy, then, to sneak into its proc gen office floors and make off with the goods, right?
Ha ha, you fool. Perfect information doesn’t make you perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. In part because the game delights in tempting you. Sure, you can get what you need and leave, but push on into another room or two and you might find a new tool, a new character, or rescue the character you got captured on the last mission. The more you push, the more guards will start wandering the floor in search of intruders, the more you’ll find yourself having to make sacrifices of your characters.
That’s tough because the character design here is great, both in terms of the unique skills your crew each have, and in their visual design. Invisible, Inc.’s characters are cool like few other games pull off.
If your favourite bit of any XCOM fight is the moment before all hell breaks loose – or if you really liked the recent Mutant: Year Zero – give this a try next. It’s a tighter game, but its reduced scope brings clarity of purpose and design.
Dishonored 2 (2016)
Arkane created a world of political intrigue and class struggle, where everyone is betraying everyone else, and then let you be an assassin in it. An assassin with magic powers. The sequel, though the PC build was initially plagued with performance issues on release, goes further than the original in creating an exquisite playground for you to exploit. The levels are layered Fabergé eggs, within which you craft your own complex plots. Hack a clockwork robot here, flood an entire building with knockout gas there, and decide the fate of a nation.
Alice Bee: How do I love thee, Dishonored? Let me count the ways. Not literally, though, or we’ll be here all day. I was being poetic, like.
I think Dishonored 2 is probably the perfect form of Dishonored (much as I also enjoy Death Of The Outsider, and its portrayal of a world caught in the moment between past and future, between the old ways and the new). Because you’re given the option of playing as Emily or Corvo, you get two entirely different ways to play the game, even on top of the lethal vs. pacifist approaches.
Christ, though, Dishonored 2 is just so fucking stylish. It’s the sexiest game to ever feature no shagging. Mission four is the Clockwork Mansion, where you have to break into the home of big science weirdo Kirin Jindosh. He’s really gone hard and gone home, transforming his mansion into a weird collection of moving parts, guarded by hideous clockwork automata. And yet, you can outsmart him. You can sneak into the walls. You can burrow into his little nest. You can be as a ghost.
The whole game is like that. It is well oiled machine, and you can become a cog in it, an unknown, unseen presence that spins this way, then that, subtly changing the workings. Or you can be a big stabby murder girl. Up to you, isn’t it?
Katharine: How do I love thee, Clockwork Mansion? Let me count the ways. It was, what, five hours I spent crawling around inside your walls, dodging your hulking great clockwork soldiers and trying desperately avoid your network of surveillance bots? Or was it eight? Or nine? Whatever number it was, I’d do it all again in an instant.
In truth, I needn’t have spent that long slipping through the cracks of this single, but fiendishly brilliant Dishonored 2 level. This burden I brought upon myself. Having played and adored the first Dishonored but also wholly misunderstanding how its chaos system worked, I made a solemn vow upon starting Dishonored 2 that not only was I going to finish the game with Low Chaos this time, thereby getting the ‘good’ ending, but I was also going to do it completely unseen and without shedding a single drop of blood – and my Shadow and Clean Hands achievements remain two of my greatest gaming accomplishments to this day. Yes, it involved a lot of quick saves and quick reloads. Yes, it probably took twice as long to play as it perhaps should have done, but it was worth it reader, because Dishonored 2 is a masterpiece of design, ingenuity and general splendidness.
Karnaca is a city that twists, turns and loops back in on itself without ever losing its sense of place or structure. It’s Jindosh’s Clockwork Mansion writ large across an entire urban sprawl, and for me its warren of plague-ridden shops, murderous alleyways and lived-in apartment blocks are far more treacherous and enticing destinations than their Dunwall equivalents ever were. As you pick through the aftermath of the city’s devastating Bloodfly invasion, you too start to feel like some sort of disease that’s rippling through its corrupted streets, dismantling its upper echelons from the inside out before leaving without a trace. There are so many secrets to uncover and so many paths you can take to try and get there, yet all the while it’s a city that adheres to the strict tick-tick-tick of its clockwork logic.
The Clockwork Mansion may leave an indelible mark on the early hours of Dishonored 2, but this is by no means a game that peaks early. Beyond Jindosh’s mansion, his spirit comes back to bite you in the ass when you encounter his devilish Jindosh Lock, and moments later you’re being dazzled once again by the time-travelling puzzle box that is Aramis Stilton’s decaying manor house. Finally, it all culminates in the sweetest, most delicious serving of hot revenge I’ve ever seen in a video game. It is, in a word, perfect, and my ultimate game of the decade by a blinking country mile.
After a decade lain fallow, uncertain of its place in the modern FPS scene, the game that made Id Software returned in a shower of guts. The reborn Doom is fast, it is nimble, it is loud, and it rewards you for tearing demons apart with your bare hands.
Dave: The moment I knew that the revamped Doom was something special was when the Doom Slayer pumped his shotgun in time with the music. Doom has a vibe, you see – a 90s power fantasy unashamed of how much cheese is heaped on. After all, do we not order entire boards of cheese at restaurants? Cheese is great! And 2016 Doom gets this.
It has all the toys you’d expect to find in a Doom game, including my personal favourite the Super Shotgun, which erases foes from existence with commendable speed. But while the 90s classics are fast paced shooters through mazes littered with hell’s most grotesque champions, the reboot managed to make the concept a lot more violent – perhaps because games can look a lot more realistic these days — and while all the shooting is well and good, the new Doom is at its best when you’re getting your hands dirty.
For you see, Doom wants you to slay demons in the most barbaric way possible. Enemies stagger when they’re low on health, long enough for you perform Glory Kills, which might involve chainsawing someone down to their naval, or ripping their arm off to hit them with it, or smashing their head like a balloon full of jam.
There’s a benefit to the ultraviolence too, so it’s not entirely gratuitous. Glory Kills give you health pickups, while chopping things with the chainsaw makes the enemy cadaver spew ammunition like a fountain. This means less time is spent running away to recover and replenish, and more time is spent killing things! It’s just what the Doom Slayer would have wanted.
Explore all the thrills, chills, responsibilities, and mundanities of building a colony on another world in this survival management game. Your plans may be big and your blueprints impressive but can be all too easily undone by shortages, spoilage, raiders, aliens, fires, your own mistakes, or the quiet ticking time bomb of a colonist who is so sick of people clomping around at night that they snap. A bit like Dwarf Fortress, in space, with menus to click and pictures to look at.
Nate: One of the worst names of the decade, for one of the best games. It’s not even bad in itself – anyone who’s well into their space opera can figure out that a “RimWorld” is probably a world on the rim of known space, or the galaxy, or whatever. But for everyone else, and especially for those people whose sense of humour focuses entirely on hooting like delighted chimps whenever they spot someone using a word that also has a Sex Meaning, RimWorld sounded like a themepark based on the concept of licking arseholes.
It’s not. It’s a brilliant colony builder, and one of those rare, incredible games that’s just as strong in its capacity for creating emergent stories, as it is in its capacity as an actual game. For just a few examples of the tales you can set up with RimWorld, I defer to that cool guy Nate, who listed five of his favourites here.
Sin: “What if Dwarf Fortress was playable?” is one of those concepts that everyone wants to realise. RimWorld is both an answer to that and its own distinct idea. It takes a bit of setting up to play the way I like, but that’s a mark of some of the best games, even before you factor in RimWorld’s healthy mod scene: It lets you do it how you like it.
Its mix of base building, survival, and life sim is just about right, and its famous harshness easy to mitigate for those who just want to have a good time, or bump up for those who relish a cascading disaster sim. Its (mostly optional) darkness – slavery, organ harvesting, cannibalism – is counteracted by its pleasant atmosphere and the warm glow of pemmican on the fire, or feeding a flock of fluffy chicks, or getting all your potatoes into storage after the harvest. And you can be a nomad too. Oh my god.
Devil Daggers (2016)
Stay standing for as long as you can in this simple arena FPS. That’s all. Run around this empty oval arena and shoot skulls with your one gun while a timer counts up. That’s it. Good luck. And my god, it looks and sounds like nothing else.
Alice0: I was taken with Devil Daggers at first sight. I adore the old 3D style of unfiltered textures and jittering vertices applied to skulls, skulls, skulls – a torrent of skulls more complex and numerous than was possible in 1996. It’s a vision of an impossible past. I especially like when it breaks out of this look, with the intense colour wash and neon pinkbluepinkbluepinkblue daggerhand coming as we level up, spitting a torrent of knives.
Then I heard Devil Daggers. Jesus christ. What a sound. Grinding teeth, chuckles, groans, roars, and screams build into a rich soundscape overfilling my ears with menace. It does not sound like a video game from our world.
Then I played Devil Daggers. I surely died within 20 seconds. And again. Then a bit more. A bit more. Even passing one minute felt like a triumph. It took hours to reach five minutes, egged on by rivalries with pals on the leaderboards.
It’s great as a first-person take on top-down score attack shoot ‘em ups. Waves keep on spawning, spawners keep spawning more, bigger and tougher enemies arrive, the escalation constricts the battlefield, and it all seems such a challenge. Then you learn a bit more and survive a bit longer and realise that, actually, one wave you once found murderous was trying to feed you power-ups. You find yourself clearing waves before the next spawns. Then you realise you’ve gained enough skill that you could leave a few spawners alive and farm them for power-ups. It feels chuffing great to reach the point of dancing between clouds of skulls and under the coils of a skullsnake, my knifehand flashing with power and so many awful noises in my ears.
What’s so good is that this hellsound is vital. I need to crank the sound and fall into the soundscape so I can hear the laughing skull chasing me or the chattering teeth of a gathering cloud and react to everything I can’t see. Over this, my hand is wibble-wobble-warbling as it spits knives and will soon power up to full-on screaming. If I’m to survive skullhell, I need to pour it into my eyes and eyes until it fills me up to my fingertips and the game flows through me. I adore this full-body experience.
Graham: We named Devil Daggers as the best game of 2016, and I’ve never felt more estranged from a comments section. The recurring refrain was, “Well, it’s fine, but it doesn’t have a lot of content though, does it?” Sure thing, Shakespeare, that sonnet is nice and all, but could you do me some unlockable stanzas to keep me motivated?
Blizzard’s first multiplayer FPS draws inspiration from class-based shooters like Team Fortress 2, sending teams out to push points and murder each other other. Its dozens of classes are clear characters, with their own colourful personalities and backstories. Blizzard insist there’s a grim comic book tale of murder and intrigue beneath it all but naw mate, it’s a load of pals larking about.
Nate: For the most part, I like sluggish, top-down games about organising things and increasing their complexity. And most of my favourite games are that sort of thing. But the more I’ve looked at this list of the last decade’s digital belters, the more I’m finding that in pretty much every genre, there’s a game that was good enough to lure me out of my grognard’s hole and get me to do something different for once. Skyrim did it for first person RPGs, Nidhogg did it for fighting games, FTL did it for roguelikes. And Overwatch did it, not just for shooters – which I’ve enjoyed plenty of over the years, but for competitive shooters, which was a first for me.
I guess it wasn’t just that it was good enough to lure me either – it was so bloody well marketed, that I felt I’d be missing out on something not to give it a try. It’s the characters, I suppose; that ever-growing roster of Saturday morning buffoons who all seem immensely likeable, despite having about a crisp packet’s worth of writing shared between them. They’re all so larger than life, so instantly knowable, that they become easy hooks for jokes between friends while playing. Whether I’m warning of the arrival of what I insist on calling Junkrat’s Malevolent Wheel in hushed tones, or speaking in the third person and refusing to call myself anything except “Rammstein” while playing as Reinhardt, they’re great fodder for laughs. And I suppose that’s the thing about Overwatch – it’s as much about teamwork as it is about competition, and if you’re playing with friends of your own skill level, who aren’t dead set on smashing through the ranks, it’s a heck of a relaxing backdrop to hang out in.
Alice L: I got really really into Overwatch for about a year. I even, embarrassingly, have a D.Va bumper sticker on my car.
Graham: Team Fortress 2 but worse.
Alice Bee: Ignore Graham. I played loads of TF2 in the bad old days, and Overwatch may be asking you to squint and pretend you’ve not seen a bunch of these ideas before, but it’s so much more fun than Valve’s competitive shooter attached to a hat economy. Especially if you like playing support characters (which, obviously, should be called “the best class, you ungrateful bastards”) and enjoying yourself at the same time. I was a Lúcio main when I played. God. The speed. The joy.
You know how it starts in building games plopping us down alone in hostile place: first, you must knock down a tree. In Factorio, rather than starting you down the path of crafting increasingly tough axes, this tree fuels what will soon be a sprawling web of drills, conveyor belts, assemblers, generators, batteries, defenses, construction robots, and laboratories, a vast mechanism of machines building machines to build better machines. All the thrills of production line management with hostile alien wildlife t’boot.
Nate: There’s no joy to Factorio. It doesn’t need it. There’s no beauty, no whimsy, no story, no frippery. Just the deep, brutal, chemical satisfaction of starting with nothing, and building it into a sprawling mass of ordered complexity. The difference between Factorio and other system-building games (say, the Anno series, or other citybuilders where things process other things) is an absolute chasm. It’s the difference between a half hour listening to light classical music, and three sleepless days spent in the concrete basement of a derelict warehouse, off your ronalds on bonk, while a DJ punishes your eardrums with minimalist techno cranked up to god volume.
Once you prise yourself away from a proper Factorio sesh, you’ll be astounded at the sheer, teeming, intricacy of the assembly line you were somehow able to create. You’ll wonder how on earth your small, soft, human mind managed to fathom the enormity of it all – and that’s when you realise the genius of the game’s design. Because Factorio guides you into its monstrous grandeur through steps so slight you never even know your feet are moving. Play is essentially a voluntary fugue state, full of decisions so small you make them without really thinking, but adding up to works of monolithic scale. It’s like turning into a load of ants for a while. I love it; I’m scared of it.
Sin: Efficiency is like salt. A little is vital. A little more in the right place at the right moment is delightful. But the salting of things is not a worthy or interesting goal to me. Instead, I enjoy elaborate looping constructs that make a kind of sense but only for that machine, only for that world, only to me. This machinery has a history, and even when parts of it are taken up and recombined, that history belongs here. I am an archivist factorian, constructing systems based on the changing whims and inputs of time. You might value efficiency. You might value symmetry, or environmentalism, or deep pools of backup resources. Your machine will be your own, and you will make it and know it and love it like nobody else could.
That is Factorio.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)
Larian’s RPG series continues with more wonderful turn-based tactical combat based around combining and clashing elements and more series crammed in absolutely everywhere. With a sense of curiosity, the right abilities, and a little caution, you’ll be finding interesting stories from talking to baby bears or by eating the leg of a child killed by a shark to gain its memories. Though your co-op partner might disagree about how to continue, and the game plans for disagreements. How very complex and clever.
Nate: Without wanting to be too much the archetypical RPS Sad Lad, I should say that I first played D:OS2 after I got back from burying my mum. I was at my cousin’s house, and he sat me down in front of the game because he wanted something that would give me a break from reality. I only mention this because it completely worked. And if a game can leave you with a sense of wonder at a time like that, and even make you feel nostalgic for the day you left your last parent in a hole forever, then it must be bloody well written.
I say written, but damn near everything about the game is layered with craft, from the sweeping, atmospheric score, to the voice acting, to the elemental combat system. It is, as any game of its kind desires to be, a proper world, whose edges become invisible – or at least irrelevant – once you’re inside. It gave me that ephemeral thing that I can only call the Baldur’s Gate 2 Emotion, only… more so than Baldur’s Gate 2, somehow. What a treat, to not only recapture the feeling of playing something you loved for the first time, but to exceed it. And with a playable lizard man, too.
I had to put it down eventually, somewhere in the latter reaches of its punishingly vast second act, because life got back to normal, and you’ve got less time to play games when you’re not in the weird social cocoon the world builds for you when you’re grieving. But it’s OK – because for the last year, I’ve been following RPS’ very own video team as they play through the whole damned thing. Soon, they’ll have reached the point where I stopped, and I’ll be able to live out the rest of the adventure vicariously, through them. And you know what? It’ll be just as good. Even better, in fact, because my mum won’t just have died.
Alice L: If you’d have told me, even two years ago, that I’d like an isometric RPG so much it’d be one of my games of the decade, I’d have laughed in your face. But, as it happens, Matthew wanted our first ever let’s play on the channel to be a one hundred hour PLUS RPG, so here we are. I love Fane, I love Lohse, I can just about tolerate The Red Prince, and I don’t have much of an opinion on Sebille. But I am so heavily invested in this game, I often can’t stop thinking about it. More often than not the thing I’m thinking about is the inventory management and the messy hotbar.
Video Matthew: SUMMON THE BLOOD BEAST.
What Remains Of Edith Finch (2017)
The most obvious, and spoiler free, response to the title is “a big weird house”, because that’s what you explore as you unravel the strange stories of the strange deaths of a strange family. They all lived together somewhere in Washington state, and as you unlock each bedroom you get another piece of the puzzle that was their lives. The vignettes you see are inventive, and take full advantage of how games can tell stories in a unique way. And everyone remembers the one with the fish, don’t they?
Alice L: Wow, what a game. Unbelievably unforgettable.
Alice0: I am so grateful to Edith Finch for building this place for me to explore. What a treat of a house. The rest’s grand and all but damn, thanks for manifesting the unreal.
Video Matthew: Sam ‘Her Story’ Barlow described this as “narrative WarioWare” which is the greatest game pitch of all time.
Alice Bee: All the little stories in Edith Finch are about death, but very very few of them are actually sad, even if the deaths themselves are tragic. The way you experience them is usually joyful, beautiful, hopeful, and not sad at all. Even what is perhaps the most tragic death of all becomes a lovely game where bath toys dance together like something out of Fantasia. It’s a really wonderful video game.
Katharine: The bath bit almost destroyed me, but as Alice Bee just mentioned, most of the tragedies that haunt this jumbled old mansion are more joyful than sad. The bit with the swing, for example, is truly awful if you stop and think about it for a minute, but it’s also one of the most peaceful and uplifting ends to a Finch story the game has. And oh, the bit with the fish-chopping! What an absolute masterpiece.
Graham: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin. Which, yes, fine, but kids fuck up their mum and dad, too. Example: I used to be able to play things like Edith Finch and remain unaffected, but not anymore. It is one of my favourite games ever, but the bath scene reduced me to such a burbling mess that I can’t ever play it again. Maybe when my kid is grown.
Slay The Spire (2017)
This roguelikelike deck-building card game sends us up a strange fantasy tower to slay its beating heart and free ourselves from the Sisyphean cycle. Collecting cards and artefacts along a run from friends and foes, the different classes can develop wild decks and combos as we face ever stranger and more powerful enemies. Through all this, combat remains clear and predictable, something to plan not wing.
Nate: When it comes to card games, Hearthstone is my thing. Or at least it was, until I had a slurp on this Slay the Soup. And what a broth it was. I have to admit, I found it a bit charmless at first – the weird simplistic monster designs weren’t doing it for me, and the card effects felt a bit… simple, at least compared to Hearthstone’s consummate Blizzard razzle-dazzle. Oh, how wrong I was.
Like any good roguelike (usual disclaimers apply about the use of the term, etc, etc), you can only really get a feeling for Slay The Spire after beefing it on hundreds of attempts. Once you’re sufficiently committed to an odyssey of repeated failures, it really starts to shine – you start to get an instinct for the colossal number of potential interactions between characters, cards, enemies, and items, and the order-of-magnitude increase in those interactions facilitated by mucking around with the game’s parameters.
I don’t find it quite moreish enough to really drag me in like it does some people, but I think that’s partially because I developed an early, healthy awe of just how infinite a game it is. It made me feel exhausted, before I’d even gone a hundredth of the distance I’d need to acquire anything that might be called mastery.
And now they’re adding another bloody character, and making it even bigger. A mathematician friend once tried and failed to explain to me how there are multiple types of infinities. I still don’t get it, and I don’t like maths enough to want to get it (but go ahead and write essays in the comments anyway, if you want to look like a right brainus). In the end though, I guess Slay the Spire has proved their point for me at last, because clearly, the game’s already infinite size is just not quite infinite enough for its most committed players.
Alice0: Slay The Spire is plain and simple. Cards have easy numbers and clear consequences, and enemies telegraph their moves. Draw, cast, bish bash bosh. This magical tower is a colourful place with interesting enemies and a fun tone. It’s nice.
Then you unlock more cards, more characters, and more items, and it’s still plain and simple but the opportunities expand greatly. I’m building runs which play twenty cards a turn, vast engines generating power for an explosive finish. I’m building runs that whip through zero-cost attacks, scratching and slashing in a frenzy. I’m building an impenetrable defense and biding my time while spitting poison or pumping up my muscles until I throw a one-hit KO. I’m flowing between stances that expose weaknesses to strike powerful blows then cover them before foes can exploit them. I’m stockpiling cursed cards that would spoil most runs but fuel this one. The building blocks are simple but allow complex constructions.
Luck plays a part, of course. Such is the roguelikelike. Slay The Spire gives a satisfying amount of space to influence this. Each level we can plot our path through encounters, shops, and treasures. We may not know exactly what’s in wait, but the decisions are important. We get a pick of several rewards each time too, several options to shape or support our run. And as a recovering Magic: The Gathering rat, I like the space it gives me to optimise and hone runs, stripping cards back to build a lean engine of death.
The character classes are great too. I like how well card abilities, art, and names come together in decks that feel like playing as a knight with unholy brawn, a swift rogue whose dodges and rolls slip in a subtle blow or dagger, a robotic battle mage conjuring elements and upgrading itself, and a monk chain moves between stances. What a fine cast of magical murderers.
The Norwood Suite (2017)
Check into the hotel opened in the mansion of an acclaimed jazz musician with this first-person explore-o-adventure game. Meet the guests, uncover the forces vying for control of Peter Norwood’s home and legacy, and explore secret spaces. This is the follow-up to Off-Peak, set outside the city and beyond its strange train station.
Alice0: When you turn on the router so you can complete your online check-in at the Norwood Hotel and an eyeball rolls open on the front, it’s not weird. It’s not quirky that dozens of grasping hands extend from a door frame. Why shouldn’t a meat slicer in the hotel kitchen be adorned with the steel head and feet of a dachshund? Is there a reason why a bedroom wouldn’t contain a model city dancing to the music? And it seems only natural that giant artworks cover every surface and fill every corner. This hotel is so loud, so vivid, so unsubtle, so clashing, that every oddity is perfectly at home. Everything is a surprise and a treat, nothing is weird. I adore slipping into Cosmo D’s intense visions.
It is an excellent place to explore, and its guests are in interesting bunch. Everyone comes to Norwood’s former home for some connection to music. Some are musicians seeking inspiration or education. Some are making a pilgrimage to pay homage to a great. Some are leeching from the legacy to bolster their status. Some see it just as a branding opportunity. Some have even come to remember Norwood as a friend and collaborator. Norwood Suite explores the varied and complex relationships people have with music, how it can touch and ruin lives or become just another commodity.
Ah, but it’s just a grand place to be. I adore poking in drawers, barreling through diorama-filled secret tunnels, admiring the many weird sculptures and books, grooving to Cosmo D’s music, and being overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, stories, and sinister vibes. And I do think it’s gorgeous.
Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
After being lost at sea, the Obra Dinn drifts back to civilisation with not a soul left but plenty of corpses. Wielding a magical pocketwatch, we can see the moments of their death, exploring scenes of tragedy frozen in time. But who are all these corpses? How did everyone die? It’s our job to identify the fate of every last person aboard by snooping through the scenes and stories, coming to learn the crew and the many tragedies that befell them. It’s a detective game where you might clearly see how someone died but discovering who they are takes hours of deduction.
Alice Bee: More than one person I have lived with has remarked that I am, in some respects, the stereotype of a little old lady. I sit on the sofa, with a fluffy pink blanket over my legs, drink a lot of tea, and watch episodes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I have read all the books, and I know the culprits already, so occasionally I’ll throw a Midsomer Murders in to spice things up. What I am saying is, I love a mystery. Specifically, I love the mysteries where you have a chance of figuring out whodunnit yourself: the murderer has been introduced to you, in the pack of suspects, and then shuffled back amongst them.
I have, I’m sure, said many times before that Return Of The Obra Dinn is probably the only game where I have felt like I am actually detecting things – figuring them out myself, using logic, and being rewarded for it. Rewarded with the solution. And that is enough for a good detective.
Alice0: I’ve never felt so proud of myself for investigating people’s socks. And my god, some of the surprises floored me. Even frozen in time, I felt unsafe.
Katharine: I, too, was a fervent shoe enthusiast in my approach to Obra Dinn, but the best thing about it was comparing notes with Matthew. He never once looked at a shoe during his first playthrough and ended up discovering an entirely different way of figuring out what’s effectively the world’s most obtuse version of Guess Who? So many possibilities exist in this game, and seeing friends and relatives arrive at the same conclusion via so many different methods made me appreciate its ingenuity even more. A true masterpiece.
Video Matthew: I replayed this recently – left it long enough to forget the most vital clues – and was dazzled afresh by its cleverness and the sheer horror of the thing. Obra Dinn is a great advert for environmental awareness: once you’ve seen what nightmares live in the ocean, the last thing you’ll want is the world to have more sea. Brrr.
Alice L: This game made me feel both smart and incredibly dim at the same time, for 80% of the time I played. That art style, that music, that mystery. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure it took me a lot longer to figure everything out than anyone else. But I still did it. Look, ma. I’m a detective now.
Yakuza 0 (2018)
After a decade of PlayStation exclusivity, Sega’s open-world brawler RPG series about the Tokyo underworld has finally come to PC, starting with this prequel. Two playable characters living in Tokyo and Osaka become ensnared in the same plot around an estate deal, though they don’t seem to notice because they spend so long on minigames, side-businesses, dinners, and sidequests where they slam thugs with bicycles then dispense fatherly advice to children and adults alike.
Alice0: An open-world RPG set in small city spaces dense with detail where I can thunk punks with a bicycle sounds just grand to me. I’d be happy enough pottering about, doing quests, eating dinners, and playing minigames. You know, GTA on a smaller scale with more to do, something like that – it’d be fine. What makes me so adore Yakuza so much more is the melodramatic tone. Yakuza 0 knows two things: you are Japan’s toughest mobster, and you are Japan’s nicest uncle. It commits fully to both.
Yakuza 0 is a crime melodrama focused on an backalley lot in Tokyo. Several organisations are jostling to secure this invaluable real estate and tighten their grip on the city, and it’s turned deadly. Who owns this lot? How far does this web of intrigue spread and how high does it go? And why is everyone trying to kill us? With our steely resolve, our strong moral code, our dramatic shouting, and our raw strength, we might just settle the matter.
Yakuza 0 is a melodramatic family comedy about a wacky mobster who loves food, has a childlike wonder, is nervous around women, and wants to help every downtrodden person in the world. Reunite families! Teach children kindness and self-confidence when you join a slot car racing league! Help a kid get back his stolen video game, and teach a valuable lesson in parenting to his dad! Help a floundering dominatrix believe in herself! Befriend a weird dude who hangs around in his pants yelling about porn! Befriend Michael Jackson! Hire a chicken to be a property manager at your real estate business!
What’s astonishing is that Yakuza 0 has not one crimedad but two, with two protagonists playable in different chapters. Kiryu and Majima are quite different and both absolutely delightful. What good boys. What excellent thugs.
Yakuza 0’s a cheery old brawler, with different fighting stances and skills to upgrade making even ploughing through random wandering enemies a joy. Kiryu slamming thugs with bicycles and boxing blows, Majima whirling around with a baseball bat and breakdancing moves. Never not melodramatic.
It’s almost a shame that so many Yakuza games have hit PC so quickly after ending their PlayStation exclusivity. They do become ‘more of the same’ if you chain them. But that ‘same’ is still delightful, and Yakuza 0 is perhaps the series at its best. It’s certainly the place the start.
I’m so happy to be in Yakuza. It’s warm and funny yet still an interesting crime drama. I forgive its few mastubatory missteps. Its cities are bustling and full of fun diversions that make me digitally live there. I have jobs there too – and Majima’s cabaret club is the best money-making minigame I’ve played in any game. Ah, I want to stop writing this now and go hang out with the nice crimeboys again.
Star Traders: Frontiers (2018)
Here’s space, here’s you, here’s a spaceship to get you started, and now what? In this space RPG, the galaxy is your sandbox. Faction conflicts, business, and personal interests run the simulation, the universe changing around you as you build your crew, ship, reputation, and fortune. What sort of spaceman do you want to be?
Sin: Star Traders Colon Frontiers lets you do what you want. You know that point you get to in most RPGs where you’re sort of bored of your character and want to try something else? You don’t have to. You can hire a new crew, kicking out those bounty hunters you trained, and replacing them with diplomats and spies instead. Perhaps retool your ship for your new career, letting it and your people make up for your captain’s lack of expertise. It’ll cost you, but hey, you can probably do both jobs now anyway.
Star Traders is brimming with hidden people and events. Its encounters are driven by local and regional politics, most of which you can influence if you ferret out the hidden faction contacts who jostle for influence as they make everything move. Several heavily branching (and entirely optional, although they’ll resolve without you if you wait long enough) plots throw you deep into the corporate and neo-feudal machinations of its setting. You’ll never stick to your plans – sooner or later some interesting opportunity or tempting prize will pull you out of your comfort zone. Your terrifying-but-fair pirate might become a key diplomat in an era-defining trial. Your unassuming spy might double as a merchant, your scavenger pivot to hunting aliens. And who knows, that swordsman you recruited might have potential as a field medic, and become one of your favourite officers after a hasty field promotion. Now you’ve got a deadly frontline fighter who can poison attackers and patch your team up.
The work the Trese Brothers put into supporting their game is truly phenomenal too. Every criticism we’ve made has been contemplated and addressed during its two years of frequent updates and additions, each one bringing a little more life and longevity to an already outstanding RPG. It’s my favourite space game ever.
Hitman 2 (2018)
The seventh main game in Io Interative’s sneaky murder simulator focuses even more on sandbox levels with oh so many strange and creative ways to assassinate targets. Creep around, disguise yourself, and learn the many possible ways to kill people as Ian Hitman returns for new targets and opportunities. It does have a linear story campaign but it’s a murderworld to revisit and master, not blow through.
Graham: A point-and-click adventure where instead of sticking tape to a fence to make a moustache from cat hair, you’re putting a bomb in a toilet and poison on a fish to make a man do an explosive poo. Hitman 2 (which contains all the levels from 2016’s also excellent Hitman) offers a series of elaborate Rube Goldberg devices where you need to work out which domino to place and push to make a person die at the end of the chain.
This turns out to be disturbingly satisfying. All the parts are laid out and waiting for you, but it still tricks you into feeling clever for manipulating them as required. And Hitman 2 contains levels so vast and surprising that I think I’d be happy if IO just followed this template forever, releasing 5 or 6 new murder playgrounds every couple of years.
Into The Breach (2018)
Monsters have risen from the depths of the Earth to ravage the remains of humanity, and only a timeline-tripping squad of mech pilots can stop them. The second game from the makers of FTL sends us out to mash the monsters in short turn-based tactical battles focused on manipulating enemy movement. The beauty of Into The Breach is that we can see every enemy’s planned action and the consequences of our own. Blessed with certainty, we become master manipulators shuffling enemies around the battlefield, nudging attacks onto different targets, and setting up clever chains.
Nate: I’m too thick for chess, and I’m too impatient for puzzle games. Which is why I absolutely loved Into The Breach, until I realised it was just a series of Pacific-Rim-styled chess puzzles, and quit in a cloud of my own prejudices. That’s my problem, however, not the game’s. And in fairness, it doesn’t feel like chess, at least at first. It feels like a classic turn-based tactics game.
But there’s no element of chance involved, and in each beautifully minimalist battlefield, there’s no information required to achieve a perfect victory that isn’t available to you from the word go. It’s a game about planning, basically. Not just planning; a game about packing for a caravan holiday could be about planning. This is a game about being able to mentally simulate the future interaction of known quantities, and plan a series of actions that takes advantage of all those interactions to achieve your own goals.
About being so clever you can see into the future, essentially. And as already stated, I’m too thick for that. I like my tactics with a side order of chaos and improvisation. I prefer to react, rather than to act. But if you’re wired the other way, it’ll be easy for you to agree that Into The Breach is one of the neatest achievements in the history of game design.
Graham: Nate says that ITB is a game about planning, but I say it’s a game about shoving. Big robots shoving big insectoid monsters into each other, into skyscrapers, into lakes. You do this in order to warp those enemy’s intended next turn. They’re going to shove your mate, so you shove them first so that their shove actually shoves their mate. Take that, shovetoids! Do this successfully enough and you can preempt the enemy’s every attempted attack, leaving you with a squad at full health, and a saved city in awe of your genius.
Football Manager (2010-2019)
Battles are almost an afterthought in this strategy game which focuses on the finance and intrigue behind army-building. When dozens of other armies are competing for the same soldiers, you’ll need to build a strong financial base, regiments of supporters, and the sympathies of the media to secure top troops and build your dynasty. Even the greatest plans can be undone by the flesh, one torn ligament taking down your linchpin soldier. All’s fair in love and ballwar.
Graham: Football is about stories: long-running rivalries, last-minute comebacks, underdogs rising up and legends on the fall. “Football Manager is a spreadsheet,” goes the common dismissal, but through its pages and pages of stats, all those stories of the sport are told. That’s what makes it more than just an impressive simulation, and that’s why people write Football Manager fan fiction.
It is an impressive simulation, though. You can talk about dwarves getting sad that their cat died, but Football Manager isn’t far off Dwarf Fortress when it comes to attention to detail. Aside from the 40 or so visible and invisible stats which determine a player’s performance on the pitch, there’s also a representation of their personality, morale, and more. You can poke at these things via conversations with players, working to get the best out of your players by amping them up before a big game, or compelling them to sign a new contract by appealing to their ego.
Many of these systems are deliberately opaque, which means they’re often unrewarding to tinker with, but there’s rarely a situation where the game just rolls a die. Even the in-game weather is simulated, so that doing it on a rainy Sunday in Watford is the result of an actual weather front rolling across town, affecting any other games being played nearby.
For me, it’s the summer breaks I’m addicted to. I live for finding young players – fictional regens, ideally – and turning them into superstars through training and a gradual introduction to the first team. This is better than levelling characters in any other RPG.
Note that we’ve not picked any particular entry in the series to hold this spot on the list. Football Manager long ago invented the wheel and has since settled down into a steady routine of adding automatic doozits and more cup-holders. If you’re going to play any in the series, it should probably be the most recent – and they remove the old entries from sale so you have no little choice in the matter, anyway.
Dark Souls Remastered (2018)
At the end of an era, civilisation has long-since fallen into tragedy and ruin, haunted by remnants of what once was. Still, you get to stab a lot of people. This fantasy action-RPG has a reputation for being murderously tough mostly because it requires you to pause, think, and learn. Die, respawn, take a deep breath, parry, counter-attack and away you go. Dark Souls debuted on consoles in 2011, hit PC in 2012 with a rubbo port, then got polished with a remaster in 2018 so that’s what we’re cooing over.
Alice0: Many words have been written about the joys of parry-countering, of beating a boss you’d been bashing your face against, of learning how interconnected the world is, of how sad and lonely it all is, of having freedom to explore and experiment then fail or thrive, of invading and surviving invasion, of being a cheeky big lad invading then passively block a doorway with your large body, and of how history is hidden in handed-down stories, myths, and swords. These are indeed all great. I’ll use this space to expand on something I meant to say a while back.
Adam and I ruffled some feathers when we semi-cheekily declared (or I remember it was chiefly us two agitating for it?) that Dark Souls is the best RPG, a title it has surprisingly held for years without either of us touching that list. I stand by it. Dark Souls very much is a roleplaying game. It has choices and it has consequences. You can form friendships and alliances. You can save people and you can can betray them. You can find hidden quests and stories. But, wonderfully, very little of this is presented in standard RPG ways. To roleplay, you need to know that you have this choice – and forces driving the plot would very much prefer you did not have ideas of your own.
If you’re curious about NPCs, you pay attention to what they say, and you think to search when they go missing, congratulations, you’re a hero who thinks of others and wants to help. Perhaps you also like helping other players and always drop a summon sign to be drawn in and fight alongside them, maybe joining a covenant dedicated to helping. I often regretted killing a sickly spidersister’s protector and would join her covenant to nurse her as an act of contrition. Leaving misleading messages for other players is a classic dick move. If you don’t care about any of these people and want their hats, mate, you’ve probably already stabbed them. Maybe you even joined the soulstealing cult deemed so dangerous that a whole city was drowned to stop them, because you wanted to invade and kill other players. And what does it say about someone who joins a group dedicated to fighting invaders? We’re all turning hollow and falling into obsessions but some of us retain a little more humanity.
Between the (admittedly few) NPC stories, multiplayer interactions, and the covenants, Dark Souls offers a generous and fascinating space for roleplaying. It just requires a wee jolt to your logic to realise this, because it flows backwards to the norm. Rather than decide what sort of character you want to play then make decisions around that, in Dark Souls the game offers no direction then your character is only clear in retrospect or with introspection. What you do as the player is who your character is, even if the game never notes these decisions in a quest log or morality gauge. You might never realise this. It’s just like life, the world’s most punishing hardcore RPG. And it’s fitting that Dark Souls is quiet about this.
We’re the “Chosen Undead” because we’ve lost who are but not degraded so much that we’re useless. We’re not destined, we’re another idiot who chased the old legend. One of us had to succeed eventually. We’re just damned enough to persist in the quest to link the fires then burn up rekindling civilisation for another doomed cycle. It’s an aeons-old con and we’re the latest rube. The Man wants you to not think about what you’re doing or who you are. It’s a great scam and most of us probably did link the fires without thinking. I know on my first go I saw the final boss fall, noticed a button prompt pop up, and instantly smashed it. Even as an unthinking idiot, I like to think I’d been a good-ish person who cared for my NPC pals, helped my fellow Chosen, and felt remorse for my sins. Maybe aside from that stretch where the whole ‘quest of destiny’ thing was getting to me and I joined a cat’s murdercult in the woods, but we’ve all felt that right?
Your choices especially matter when you step into another player’s world. Are you an agent of light reaching out to help a real person beat a boss you know could have been trouncing them for hours? Or have you come to gleefully stab them in the back? Oh I’ve learned a lot about your character.
Dave: I went in to Dark Souls with the optimism and confidence of someone who had never played Demon Souls. This, as you can imagine, did not initially end well for me. But I persevered. I began to learn the precise timing needed to parry an attack, and got as far as beating the grim half-a-naked-woman-fused-to-a-spider witch Quelaag. Some absolutely classic FromSoftware monster design for you, there.
Coming back to the remastered version of Dark Souls years later was like visiting an old friend,and one who’d had a tasteful facelift. It’s still the same game, but everything about it just felt better. It was also with the remastered Dark Souls that I delved into the world of PVP with real purpose, and I now get it. Each fight is like the climactic scene in every action film. A final test of skill based on all your years of training.
After making countless games about building and programming machines, Zachtronics took a left turn with a visual novel about the consequences of technology, focused on an AI counselling program named Eliza. Playing as a human who reads the AI’s scripts to patients, this visual novel explores the problems of the tech industries playing ever-larger roles in our lives, the people within it, and the people subject to it.
Sin: Eliza was made by people who get it.
It’s in the little details, the subtle words and pauses, the unspoken parts that are so small but resonate so powerfully precisely because normally those things go unnoticed. Nobody notices how much the anxious young artist Maya is struggling to like herself. Nobody notices how much Gabriel has ineffectually buried to try to “be a man” the way he thinks he’s supposed to for his family. Nobody running the Seattle tech business behind the titular counselling AI has noticed how hopelessly inadequate it is for most clients. Nobody – not even the player – could possibly have noticed what was happening to the pleasant old woman who never really talks about anything important.
Eliza understands that far, far too many people are suffering, alone, mostly because of systems enforced by a few people at the expense of everyone else. On a societal level that’s a disaster that only creates more opportunity for them to hoard money and power. On a personal level, that’s poor Darren simply too overwhelmed with sorrow and despair to function. It’s Rae’s brother having no secure place in society. It’s Evelyn trying to salvage a future from a life she fled years ago, and still struggling to explain why without hurting. And it’s all of them stuck with no accessible support but a clumsy service sold by deluded rich men who are only making everything worse.
Also the voice acting is among the best I’ve ever heard. We need to invent a whole new award for Aily Kei’s performance.
Outer Wilds (2019)
Every twenty minutes, the sun goes supernova and your solar system is annihilated. And then it’s back, another twenty minutes on the clock. What will you do with these moments in this sandbox first-person exploration game? Where will you go with your spaceship, and what will you find? A great many wonderful sights and mysteries. The solar system may vaporise and reset every twenty minutes but you’re learning more each time.
Alice Bee: It’s amazing what you can find in 20 minutes in such a small universe. VidBud Matthew pointed out that Outer Wilds is really just another detective game, and he’s right.
I can’t even begin to imagine how the mysteries of Outer Wilds were created. The planets have actual gravity that act upon each other. There’s are messages in a long dead language. There’s a planet-sized thorn with weird dimensions. There are so many interlocking things, breadcrumbs trails that you follow across other breadcrumb trails, and so many beautiful little details. It’s like being an archaeologist trapped in a Groundhog Day with a lovely puzzle box.
Alice L: This game wasn’t even on my radar until I edited together Matthew’s video for it. And I knew from the first few moments that it was a world I wanted to get lost in and explore. What an absolutely incredible game. But fuck those fish.
Video Matthew: Outer Wilds is a Metroidvania where the only upgrades you get are knowledge: the gossip that reveals the secret to getting inside Giant’s Deep; the directions to navigating a crumbling planet in its dying moments; the snippets of science logs that reveal the soap opera squabbling of rival dorks and the steps to performing an experiment on a galactic scale. Like Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a game I struggle to fathom how anyone put it together. Much like real space, I guess.
Apex Legends (2019)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a load of lads drop onto a murderisland for looting, top bants, and bloodsport until one squad of absolute chuffing legends stands triumphant. This free-to-play battle royale FPS from Titanfall developers Respawn Entertainment smoothes many of the genre’s rough edges and expands on it with player classes bring swish sci-fi abilities.
Nate I played Plunkbat for a good while last year, because a good friend who lived a long way away played a lot of it, and it was our best option for being able to hang out and chat together. This says an awful lot about how much my friend means to me, because I fucken loathe plunkbat. It’s ugly, stressful, exhaustingly macho, and its community has a bastard streak a mile wide. But still, I found the fun in it.
If only my friend had gotten into Apex Legends. I only played for a couple of weeks, because I couldn’t lure him across, but in the brief time I spent on Fightyermates Island, I came to know a game that took everything I liked from the fundamentals of the Battle Royale template, and ditched everything that I’d found grating about Plunkbat. It was big and colourful and fun and fast, and I really liked the zipline robot fella.
Ape Out (2019)
This is a top down beat ’em up where is an ape. It is not in. Because that ape is you, and you have smashed your way through the rooms and corridors of a research facility/military base/cargo ship/office tower block. You have pulled walls from doors, splatted body armoured men into tiny red puddles, picked up their limbs and thrown those limbs at the next armoured man. You have done this all to a procedural jazz drum soundtrack. You have never felt so alive.
Alice Bee: There is a genuine danger that Ape Out will somehow end up being my GOTY of the year, every single year. I don’t think I can think of another game that has such clarity of purpose, and executes that purpose to such singular success. You ever seen a toddler advancing on a wall, with a crayon in their hand and a determined expression on their face? That is the sense of purpose that Ape Out has. Except in this analogy the toddler is about to execute a bitchin’ drum solo.
Dave: I’d not even heard of Ape Out until I watched Alice Bee punch a lad with a gun out of the window. From that point on, I knew I had to play it myself. It’s one of the few times I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable, since you can pick a goon with explosives before hurtling him into his friends, but cannot withstand more than a handful of direct hits yourself.
Ape Out’s intense colours are striking throughout, but it is perhaps at its most stylish at the start of a new level. The titles are modelled after the covers of LPs, and the name of the level splashes on screen in time to yet more cymbal crashes. Great stuff.
Graham: A lot of games attempted to follow in Hotline Miami’s footsteps by aping (a pun, that) its neon art and heavy beats. Only Ape Out has the correct idea, however, by instead lending its ultraviolence a fresh rhythm by pairing it with an entirely different genre of music. Jazz still has the propulsive tempo to drive you forward in your efforts to smash squishy humans into bits, but the feelings it evokes are different. This is not a grim video nasty. Ape Out is an improvisational jam session with literal body-popping cymbal crashes, and it’s a joy.
So that’s it! The greatest games of the 2010s, officially ranked. And because we know at least one person will say the decade isn’t over until the end of 2020: no, you are wrong. The decade started in 2010, which is year one. The decade ends at the end of 2019.
To whittle the list down to 50 we used a similar method to our RPS Advent Calendar voting. Each member of staff got the same number of points to distribute amongst the games that came out over the last ten years. You’ll note, though, that this list is in roughly chronological order, and not in order of the points they got. They’re all very good games, after all. If we were doing it on points, the winner would be Dota 2, because Matt whacked 10 points into it. Second on points was Dishonored 2 (which Katharine sacrificed 5 of her points for), followed closely by Portal 2 and 80 Days, which were tied for third place.
Most games on this list had at least two or three members of staff vote for them, with only a few getting points from just one person. The game that received votes from the most individual members of staff was 80 Days.
2018 got the most games on this list (seven), so maybe that makes it the best year for games, objectively speaking. We managed, completely by accident, to include six games each from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, so props to both us and this decade for being so consistent!
Once again, your favourite game was 51st, and you are encouraged to make an impassioned speech about it in the comments!
The complete list
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 (2010)
Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Portal 2 (2011)
FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
Hotline Miami (2012)
Crusader Kings 2 (2012)
XCOM Enemy Unknown (2012)
Planetside 2 (2012)
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)
Deadly Premonition (2013)
Dota 2 (2013)
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
Papers, Please (2013)
Cataclysm DDA (2013)
NEO Scavenger (2014)
With Those We Love Alive (2014)
Secret Habitat (2014)
80 Days (2015)
The Witcher 3 (2015)
Metal Gear Solid 5 (2015)
Cities Skylines (2015)
Invisible, Inc. (2015)
Dishonored 2 (2016)
Doom (2016) (2016)
Devil Daggers (2016)
Divinity Original Sin 2 (2017)
What Remains Of Edith Finch (2017)
Slay The Spire (2017)
The Norwood Suite (2017)
Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
Yakuza 0 (2018)
Star Traders: Frontiers (2018)
Hitman 2 (2018)
Into The Breach (2018)
Football Manager (2018)
Dark Souls Remastered (2018)
Outer Wilds (2019)
Apex Legends (2019)
Ape Out (2019)