It’s the end of a decade, which means a vast array of retrospectives for video games and movies and whatever the hell else. Assembling a “best of” list for games is a tricky and probably futile task, especially for a one-man show like this site. Games take too long to play, are too diverse in their experiences, and are spread across too many expensive platforms for one man to sample everything that might be a classic, or even everything that other people think is classic. Besides that issue, many games that are awesome experiences at the time trickle out of your mind to be forgotten until you see the case sitting on your shelf. So this is not the definitive best-of-the-decade list, nor is it even my best-of-the-decade list. This is my best-remembered list. These are the games I think about when I play other games, when I’m reading books, when I’m watching television. They are the games that have stuck in my mind long after I removed the disc from the tray, the games I think of playing again at least once a week. I’m not sure they’re the best games of the decade, or even the best games of their respective years of release, but they’re the games I’ll remember.
Beyond Good & Evil
Whoever named the game did it no favors: an unwieldy title like that, combined with the intrinsic difficulty of marketing a stealth photography adventure, probably made it much more difficult to sell. Those who picked it up, however, were rewarded with a lovable world, solid gameplay, and a realistically-designed heroine in Jade who could outthink her enemies, but was still capable of kicking some asses if she needed to. Its perspective was perhaps too naive, and the adventure ended too soon, but Beyond Good & Evil encouraged you to love the supporting cast and the world of Hyllis just as Jade did. Years later, I keep going back to see them one more time.
The first-person shooter almost always stars an exceptional warrior, a man (usually) who, due to superior ability, can overcome the hundreds of enemies thrown at him by a vicious world. BioShock sets this kind of exceptionalism fantasy in a marvelous city, Rapture, built on another — the exceptionalist ideals of Randian Objectivism. As he moves through the broken and flooded realm of Andrew Ryan’s undersea paradise, the player sees the wreckage of the world built on laissez-faire capitalism, but it still comes as a shock when the primary fantasy, the player’s conception of himself as a genuine agent in the game world, is ripped out from underneath him in one of the most intense scenes in gaming history. Complement that striking storyline with superb art direction, excellent level design, and solid mechanics, and you have one of the greatest shooters ever made.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Developers sometimes seem a bit too afraid to embrace the possibilities of subjective viewpoint in a game, but Eternal Darkness embraced them. The player’s view of the game’s world is only as reliable as the sanity of the main character at any given time. When the character’s grip on reality becomes too tenuous, statues seem to move, fictional enemies appear, pastoral paintings turn into hellish landscapes, roaches obscure the screen, and the game seems to stop mid-moment, promising a sequel. When one of the characters gets locked up in an asylum, you’re not sure he doesn’t belong there. Eternal Darkness isn’t profiling you, it’s just screwing with your head, but at that it’s surprisingly effective.
Nuclear armageddon is not, as some might think, the end of the world. Fallout 3 allows you to explore what got left behind, and there is a certain thrill of discovery in finding the new reality of a familiar place. Each new location has something to say… about government, religion, family, and hard choices in a land of scarcity. In a game this size there is plenty to criticize, and Fallout 3 is far from perfect, especially in the closing moments of the main story. When it succeeds, however, as in Liberty Prime’s march on the Enclave, the moral complexity of the Oasis quest, or its numerous masterfully crafted story-telling spaces, Fallout 3 is a marvel, a worthy addition to the storied RPG series.
Far Cry 2
If it is about anything, Far Cry 2 is about the best-laid plans of men going badly, badly astray. The government in its nameless small African country has collapsed, the warring factions that remain can never really gain the upper hand on one another, and the player, as a man sent to kill the gun merchant fueling the conflict, kicks the game off in grand style by coming down with malaria and getting shot up in one of the few half-decent towns still standing. Dozens of missions ensue, and although they reward careful planning to a degree, the game’s various AI systems tend to turn every fight into an improvisational experience, as plans A through X go bust. The natural Africa on display in the game is achingly beautiful, but the ugly human mess scattered within it means you must never let your guard down. Restrictive saves, degrading weapons, and limited ammo help make Far Cry 2 incredibly tense and adaptive, but the rescue system makes it possible to play elaborations such as permanent death. Almost nothing in Far Cry 2 goes like you planned it, but that only makes the improbable victories that much more satisfying.
Fatal Frame 2
Fatal Frame 2, a game that gave me nightmares at the age of 30, is the scariest goddamn anything ever made by anyone. As its heroine Mio tries with increasing panic to try and extricate her twin sister from a terrifying haunted town, Fatal Frame 2 artfully uses every trick in the survival horror book to ramp up the tension. The pervasive darkness of the town mimics Silent Hill’s fog, giving you the feeling you’d be even more frightened if you could see anything, and the story reinforces this emotion as the town’s monstrous past is revealed. The ghosts themselves are unrelentingly creepy in their design and vocalization, and encounters with them are extremely tense affairs because resources are limited. Oh, and Mio’s only weapon against these creatures is a camera. In the end, Mio can escape the town, but her sister cannot. I hear that if you play a second round (as opposed to a fresh replay) you can actually defeat the town, but I don’t even want to try it. The conclusion I got was right — for a game like this, “winning” shouldn’t mean winning.
Final Fantasy X
Yes, I know. Tidus is whiny, Yuna is passive, Rikku is annoying, Wakka is a dolt, Lulu is frigid, all of them are selfish. In my opinion, that gives them somewhere to go as human beings, and Final Fantasy X is worth playing because they go there. There’s something to be said for a game that’s bold enough to give its most self-centered character something worth dying for, its most self-sacrificing character something worth living for, and then make it so that neither can have what changed them. Along the way to its bittersweet conclusion, Final Fantasy X blasts holes in JRPG conventions, upending the typical neo-luddite storyline, discarding the overworld, compromising between defined linear leveling and full customization, and embracing the idea that you cannot save the world without terrible cost. FFXII may have been more openly revolutionary for the genre, but X had the more compelling human story, and a more intimate feel (reinforced by Nobuo Uematsu’s finest score). This was Tidus’ story, and despite all odds it turned out to be a story I wanted to know.
Ico & Shadow of the Colossus
Their stories have some nebulous relationship with each other, but Fumito Ueda’s classics really belong together because of their focus. Each puts an overmatched protagonist in a a world much larger than he is — the vast emptiness of Ico‘s castle foreshadows the immense landscape of Colossus. The main characters make sense of this world, in different ways, through relationships with semi-articulate companions. These games also share a core ideal of giving the player moments of profound disquiet, when he questions all that he is doing. In Colossus it is a constant drumbeat as each hapless, titanic beast falls, but in Ico it is a masterfully disturbing fight against the castle’s pervasive shadow beasts, that informs you at last what they are and where they came from. There is an economy here — practically unheard of in a medium that too often values interactivity over meaning — such that every non-essential thing has been stripped away. You ought to pay attention to what remains.
Keita Takahashi took the simplest of play activities — rolling a ball — and added wit, charm, and clumpiness to generate an absurdly creative and engaging game. Nothing about this game would make it attractive to a publisher: the concept seems bizarre, the graphics are reductionist, and there’s nothing here to attract free-spending, violence-loving teen boys. Describe Katamari Damacy to your non-gamer friends and they will look at you as if you’ve gone mad. Put the controller in their hands, however, and the game’s inexhaustible capacity to make you smile as you play will shine through. When people discuss the power of games to generate emotion, fear and frustration are always the first feelings to come up. Here we have a game that generates happiness, even joy, through the simple act of rolling things up into a big freakin’ ball.
I liked Suda51’s No More Heroes more than I liked Killer7, but it’s the latter game that still inhabits my brain. Although the gameplay is limited, Killer7‘s imagination is not, with its bizarre invisible monsters, characters transforming in bursts of blood, dialogue that sounds like a double-babelfish disaster being read to you through a garden hose, and a plot that’s meaningful despite being twisted almost beyond intelligibility. What’s more, it uses videogame conventions to tell a story that simply wouldn’t work in any other medium. It is because we are playing a game that we accept oddities like character-swapping and important information relayed by ghosts. When Killer7 asks us what those conventions might really mean if we took them seriously, it steps into an interesting and unforgettable new place.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
In many ways, Wind Waker is quite similar to Fallout 3. Their stories concern post-cataclysmic worlds that are barely adequate for the survivors, and both produce a feeling of discovery as you traverse them. The bright, cel-shaded graphics, widely derided on the game’s release, help to characterize Wind Waker‘s world as fun and tropical, and let the story ride over the top of its tragedies for most of its duration. Yet the game’s final moments are surprisingly solemn, focused on saying farewell to the past rather than trying to resurrect it. There’s an idea I wish Nintendo would take to heart.
Metroid Prime (Trilogy)
The Metroid Prime games, with their deserted landscapes and abandoned facilities, always evoke a feeling of loneliness in me. These games are about exploration as much as they are about combat, and like many explorers Samus Aran is on her own in these worlds. Nobody is coming to help her. Fortunately, Samus doesn’t need any help; she just needs the right kind of missile to open the next door. The Metroid Prime games provide the gold standard for dealing with a plethora of mechanics: introduce them carefully, one at a time, and provide the player with constant cues on how and when to use them. Highly legible environments that rarely penalize the player too seriously for failure appear effortlessly here, but in too few other games that attempt first-person platforming. I’m not sure how this could be done any better; I’m sure spoiled for dealing with anything worse.
Again we come to the idea of restraint in design. Portal presents a variety of different kinds of problems, all of which can be solved with the game’s limited set of mechanics. The designers resisted the impulse to turn this into a classic FPS where the portal gun is just one among many weapons. There are no complicated audio logs explaining the backstory, no elaborate minigames for getting through doors. Portal uses sparse environmental cues and a modest amount of dialogue to tell its story and outline its central character, GLaDOS. This doesn’t produce a richly textured tale, but it provides just enough scaffolding for the player’s imagination to go wild in the open spaces, and the player is primed for “deducing” his own story about the Aperture Science labs because he’s already in puzzle-solving mode. Of course it would all be for naught if Portal didn’t have top-notch writing and razor-sharp implementation, but fortunately those are abundance. That made this a triumph, indeed.
While the third entry in the series popularized it in America, it was its sequel that really perfected what Persona could get right. Persona 4 cast aside the most ostentatious weirdness of 3, focusing in on the drama of human interactions between the main character and his friends in a small Japanese town. For all that it was scripted and linear, Persona 4 did a better job than most Western RPGs of making you feel like you made a real difference in the lives of your friends, not by deposing a local tyrant but by helping one pal reconcile with his past as an orphan, another feel less burdened by her family’s expectations. The game’s final cutscene focuses on your teammates, not the monsters, and although it is familiar, even hackneyed, it is also incredibly warm, one of the few moments where a game has successfully evoked the feeling of fond love for friends.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Two Thrones
If only Ubisoft hadn’t screwed up Warrior Within so badly, this might be the greatest trilogy of games ever made. I hardly need to say anything about the qualities of Sands of Time at this point, except to remark that its seamless weaving of external actions like saving and reloading into the game narrative remains unmatched. I belong to a much smaller chorus in my defense of The Two Thrones, but the way that game handles the awkward disjunction between its two predecessors and closes the Prince’s story is masterful as well. Ubisoft’s developers took the wrong route, elaborating the weakest element of their game rather than reducing it, but the strongest element of the Prince of Persia games, the intense platforming, remained robust, tight, and interesting throughout the trilogy. Excellent writing (in the first and third games, at least) made the Prince and Farah strong characters who grew in believable ways. A game as remarkable for its characters as its gameplay is a rare beast indeed, even on this list.
Resident Evil 4
The story of Resident Evil 4 is incredibly, inanely dumb, and I am convinced that the people at Capcom knew this and embraced it. How else to explain two random rooms filled with lava in the castle, a 12-year-old Spanish castellan in 18th century clothing, or Leon’s persistent habit of saying “Lewis” instead of “Luis”? What is not dumb about this game is the design; the combat and the levels are almost perfectly matched. Leon is a ridiculous superman chewing through hundreds of parasitized Spanish villagers, but his need to stand still while shooting and the limited space available between him and his adversaries makes each of the fantastic set-piece fights an exercise in tension and danger. Years later, the Gamecube version of RE4 is still one of the best-looking games on the Wii, and one of the best-playing games on any system, ever.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Had it been less ostentatiously absurd, Covenant would probably have offended me, but let’s not deal in counterfactuals. Here we have a game that sends you to attack a giant hell-palace the vile monk Rasputin has summoned to St. Petersburg, that gives you a gay vampire wrestler for an ally, that also has your party recruit princess Anastasia (who moves to Japan with a boy who can transform into an Oni), that features the hero facepunching steampunk Japanese battle droids, and that makes you hunt for gay porn to trade for dresses for Gepetto’s wondrous magical dolls. On top of this, it delivers a razor-sharp battle system with surprising tactical depth and complexity, and a genuinely moving story about a man deciding whether memory is more important than life. Covenant gets you to drop your guard with its bizarre take on history and its multi-dimensional weirdness, then punches you in the gut emotionally. It’s uneven, of course, but it’s also an effective combo.
Silent Hill 2
I think I like Silent Hill 2 because it exemplifies so many of the features that draw me to other games on this list. The seemingly abandoned town generates the same feeling of isolation that I found so memorable in several other games. It’s efficient — every episode, monster, and location in the game means something, is building to something. It has strong writing and interesting characters (with the exception of Eddie, perhaps). The story and environment also reinforce one another in generating a pervasive feeling of dread. You know you will not like the truth when you find it, but at the same time you feel compelled to seek it out. The best games use every facet of their construction to convey story and emotion. Silent Hill 2 does that better than any other game on this list, and perhaps better than any other game, period.