When it comes to choosing the best games, all top lists are incomplete, mine more so than others.
I cannot claim to have played every game in the last ten years, nor even all of the games worth playing (I’ve never owned a PS3 or a PS4 so that makes playing such heavy hitters as The Last of Us, Uncharted, and Bloodbourne an impossibility). So, this list is highly biased even before we enter into the realm of personal preference and my interests. I have also made no effort to include games that I am not interested in but that are highly influential and popular (Fortnight, Minecraft, Overwatch). These are just my picks based on my own limited experience. That said, I will defend every title on this list as at the very least a top-notch representative of its genre and a game that does something interesting.
10. Darkest Dungeon – 2016
Every gamer has their own, individual line in the sand, beyond which a difficult game turns from a fun challenge into a real pain in the ass. That jet-ski level in Battle Toads, World 6 of Super Meat Boy, the Belfry Gargoyles in Dark Souls, and The Road to Nowhere level in Crash Bandicoot are all examples of this, at least to some players. This is all personal and relative, based on an individual’s talents, patience, and tendency towards masochism.
I say all this because Darkest Dungeon is a game perched right on my personal frustration limit. When I read steam reviews that call Darkest Dungeon “Needlessly brutal” or “Unfair” or “Sadistic” or “Gay”, I understand where these people are coming from. Darkest Dungeon had me raging and swearing at my computer to a frankly embarrassing degree. Normally hard games don’t leave me so flustered, because normally the consequences for failure are either trivial (like respawning at the last bonfire in Dark Souls) or non-existent (like immediately getting a chance to try again like in Super Meat Boy). The worst thing a game is likely to do to me for failing is making me sit through the same damn cut-scene again (and most of the time you can skip those). Darkest Dungeon, even though it lacks a true Game Over screen (unless you are playing on Stygian mode), will make every defeat you suffer 100% permanent, by killing off your characters with no possibility (save a very rare random event) of resurrecting them. The progression system in Darkest Dungeon is slow and costly (in in-game currency anyway, no micro-transactions here), so the death of a high-level character is always a significant blow. What’s worse, because the game is a turn-based system, you will often know well in advance when your character is in danger and how close he is to die. Don’t think you can game the system with save-scumming either, the auto-save in Darkest Dungeon is damn near perfect and any attempt to cheat will probably result in you having to watch your hero die again; how’s that for punishment?
It makes for a play style that is uniquely stressful and intense, knowing that at all times death is lurking just out of sight, waiting to spring the trap at a moment’s carelessness. I’ve had elite parties positively wrecked by low-level enemies like those goddamn spiders, which is both as funny and as humiliating as you would probably imagine. Indeed, when you’re first starting and getting the hang of the various environments and the various enemy types and hazards that they contain, you can expect to suffer more than a few setbacks and disasters. Even successful missions carry a cost with them, as any surviving heroes will develop personality quirks which will degrade their effectiveness, either in or outside of combat. My personal favorite is the compulsive personality quirks that will cause heroes to spontaneously examine objects in the dungeon, heedless of any danger to themselves. It drives home the point that you are no so much playing as these characters, as trying desperately to keep them under control. More frustrating, and more disruptive to combat are the Afflictions that occur when a hero is suffering from so much stress that they succumb to temporary insanity. The type of madness is randomly generated, but all are a pain in the ass to deal with; nobody wants a Crusader afflicted with cowardice who runs away from the front rank, nor a Vestal suffering from masochism who spends her turn scourging herself rather than healing her allies.
The difficulty though is just at the right point for me. I care about every action, every turn of combat, every item I pick up because so often each mission is balanced on a razor edge between success and failure. Each victory is a triumph, each defeat a tragedy. Few games have ever controlled my emotions so completely. I would recommend Darkest Dungeon wholeheartedly, but also advise those prone to frustration, impatience or carelessness to seek a different game.
9. Spec Ops: The Line – 2012
Modern military shooters are the butt of many a joke. They are an endless smear of brown and gray landscapes punctuated with repetitive cover-based fire-fights and dripping with unconscious xenophobia and militarism. Spec Ops is a critique of those games disguised as one of them. A subtle deconstruction of the genre that for the first few missions feels identical to the games it is parodying. It lulls you in with promises of heroic stories only to make you realize, bit by bit, that in war there are no heroes just desperate men trying to survive.
You step into the role of Captain Martin Walker of Delta Force, sent on a mission with his two squad-mates to investigate and report on the situation in Dubai which has been nearly destroyed by a cataclysmic sandstorm. The plan is to contact the American military force that was assisting with the evacuation and then call in reinforcements but that plan quickly goes to hell as Walker and his men are drawn into the insanity of Dubai. You find yourself killing the people that you’ve come to rescue, both soldier and civilian alike. Every attempt to save the city only makes life worse for those still living there and causes more pointless death and suffering.
Unlike Mass Effect and it’s peers, where the player is given the option to eventually make all the right choices (though they may be difficult in the moment), Spec Ops does not allow you to make any plot-critical decisions. Walker will use white phosphorous regardless of anything the player does to avoid it, he will sink deeper and deeper into madness and cruelty. The only way to avoid this disaster is to turn off the game and do something else. That said, the player still is given small choices. Things that are meaningless to the plot but that might have significance to themselves. I can think of few better representations of real war in video games. Soldiers often don’t have a lot of choice in the wars they are fighting or the missions they undertake. But they often have agency in the small things, the way they execute those orders. Such moments give them a chance to maintain their humanity in even the most inhumane situations.
8. Doki Doki Literature Club – 2017
What Spec Ops did for modern military shooters, Doki Doki Literature Club does for visual novel dating simulators. It starts off normally enough, you’re a nondescript Japanese high school student who has been pressured by your childhood best friend into joining the school’s literature club, which just so happens to e made up entirely of cute female members. From there you can seduce the lady of your choice through a variety of specific choices and a poem writing mini-game. The poem writing is about as close as we get to game-play (this is a visual novel after all, most of the action is gonna be just reading descriptions and dialog), where you pick out words that will appeal to one girl or another based of what you know of their personality and writing style.
The girls in the literature club are all one form or another of stock characters common to dating sims and more anime. You have the diminutive spit-fire Natsuki, the quiet intellectual Yuri, and goofy lazy-bones Sayori. However, each of these girls has a dark secret connected with their archetype. Natsuki is only so small because her abusive father often refuses to feed her (low blood sugar also causes her mood swings). Sayori is not lazy at all, but rather depressed to the point where sometimes she can’t get out of bed. Yuri’s quiet intellectualism hides perverse sadomasochism. Where Spec-Ops mocks the player’s desire to feel like a hero, Doki Doki Literature Club attacks the player for feeling attracted to these anime girls.
Doki Doki Literature Club is not done there though, as the second half of the game lapses into a full-blown horror story as the game begins to break down and turn in on itself. I’ll admit, few things matched the creeping sense that something is wrong here like when the game reboots after an especially horrific scene, and we’re returned to the cheerful pink landing page, with all your saves gone. Normally, video games allow the player to feel in control of the action, but Doki Doki Literature Club wrests that control from your hands and leaves you twisting in the winds.
7. Super Mario Odyssey – 2017
Sometimes it feels like Nintendo isn’t even part of the wider industry. In a time where seemingly every major release has some kind of micro-transactions, exploitative DLC, misleading marketing, pay-to-win mechanics, or is just flat-out-broken on the launch, Nintendo bucks the trends and acts like it’s still 1996 and none of these practices exist. Rather than ripping-off their customers, Nintendo took their time and crafted what has got to be one of the best platformers of this generation. Nintendo doesn’t understand marketing, they don’t understand the internet or the latest technologies, and they have no interest in making a game that is chasing the latest trends. It’s honestly a bit like if my Grandfather was a AAA video game developer. The only thing that Nintendo knows, or seemingly cares about, is how to make a good, family-friendly, single-player game. Such a singular purpose among AAA developers was as welcome a change of pace in 2017 as it is today.
Tellingly, the above paragraph could apply equally to both Zelda: Breath of the Wild as it does to Super Mario Odyssey. Both are great games, but I have to give the nod to Mario if only because it’s so rare to see a big-budget 3D platformer these days and open-world action-RPGs, by contrast, are a dime a dozen. That Nintendo would sink so much energy and resources into making a 3D platformer in 2017 is itself a testament to their cluelessness about what is popular; that it turned out so good is a testament to their ability.
Mario controls effortlessly. The control scheme that will be familiar to anyone that played Super Mario 64 has been further refined to the point where it is damn near perfect. Casual players will have no trouble learning Mario’s move-set and exploring the game to completion, but the controls are also complex enough that those so inclined can spend hours finessing their way passed seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The amount of mastery that this game allows is downright insane.
6. Hollow Knight – 2017
Metroidvanias are one of my favorite genres. I’ve played a whole boatload of them from classics like Super Metroid to modern gems like Ori and the Blind Forest, and for my money, Hollow Knight is the best of the lot. Indeed, on my personal site it’s become something of a trope that I conclude each new review of a Metroidvania with the line “worth playing, but not as good as Hollow Knight.”
Hollow knight does very little original. It’s a combination of classic Metroidvania mechanics with themes and atmosphere lifted from Dark Souls and visuals borrowed from Studio Ghibli. This combination isn’t even very original because Salt and Sanctuary did more or less the same thing a few years earlier (albeit with a radically different art style). Unlike Ori and the Blind Forest, there are no novel forms of traversing the world, being limited to the standard jump, double-jump, and air-dash for most of the game. What Hollow Knight offers is the fundamentals of its genre honed to a state of near perfection combined with a huge amount of content.
The world of the game dwarfs all its competition. Whereas the average Metroidvania takes about 10-20 hours to complete, Hollow Knight will probably take about 40 for your first run and even longer if you’re going for a 100%. Each section of the massive map is beautifully designed and has a unique color palette and atmosphere. Each zone has unique enemies, not just one or two but often several. Tellingly, this game has more unique boss fights than most Metroidvanias have unique enemies. The fact that all this was done by an indie developer with decidedly limited resources makes it all the more impressive.
5. Red Dead Redemption – 2010
Rockstar games are not without their issues. Their online games are microtransaction-laden sewers, that are barely functional at launch. The open-world gets so big at times that it feels like most of the game is a commute from point A to point B, rather than an exciting adventure. The combat, in almost every one of their titles, is simplistic and quickly gets repetitive. Red Dead Redemption is guilty of all this (except the online part, its sequel not so much), yet it is saved almost entirely by the strength of its world-building, the depth of its characters, and the verisimilitude of its dialogue. Rockstar has the best writers of any large development house in the current industry, and they know how to leverage that to make quality games.
With the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar sought to create a grotesque satire of contemporary life, and they succeed spectacularly. Yet this success is double-edge, as such a satire will naturally keep the audience at arm’s length, never getting too involved with the characters or the world when they are both just cruel jokes. However, with Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s goals are simpler and much more humane. They are trying to craft a story with heart, about an outlaw trying to live a life of peace with his family, and the “lawful” authorities that force him to hunt down the other members of his old gang. It was the story and the characters that kept me playing Red Dead long after I’d gotten bored with the numerous tedious shoot-outs.
The characters are, almost without exception, rich and well-crafted. Our protagonist, John Marston, does not regret the crimes he commits or the men he’s killed. Instead, he sees all his work as necessary steps to protect his family and give his son a better life. A fact that makes the ending all the more bitter and ironic. He is a man with ambitions, foibles, virtues, and vices. He is certainly no hero, but nor is he a plain villain (at least insofar as he is free from player control, as you can tie all the damsels to railroad tracks that you like), but rather he is a man trying and often failing to do what he thinks is right. The supporting cast is no slouches either, particularly the women. Bonnie MacFarlane and Abigail Marston are some of the most richly composed female characters in video games at large.
Marston and the world are introduced to us slowly. At first, we don’t who Marston is, why he does the things he does, or what he aims to accomplish. Gradually he opens up to the player and we learn of his family and the government agents forcing his hand. We learn about his old gang and adoptive father, and how Marston would much rather just let them all be. At the same time, we learn how the world itself works. This is no Spaghetti Western with stoic heroes and grotesque villains, nor is it a romantic western of Hollywood’s golden age. If it has a cinematic equivalent it lies in the classic film The Searchers, where beautiful landscapes serve as a backdrop for morally gray characters to play out their tragic drama. Heroism is real in the world of Red Dead Redemption, but it is not simple or easy. Just like in the world we live in.
4. Mass Effect 2 – 2010
The story of Bioware is a tragedy. The development house was once known for producing classic, well-written, character-driven RPGs like Baulder’s Gate, Dragon Age: Origins, and Knights of the Old Republic. Today they are known for releasing broken, unfinished products like Anthem and Mass Effect Andromeda, games well-worth the heaps of scorn and derision that they have accrued. Mass Effect 2 sits midway between Bioware the Great and Bioware the Clown, being considered either the last great Bioware game or the first sign that things were going to hell. In truth, it’s both. On the positive side, it has as bright and charming a cast of characters as any previous Bioware title, with a rich universe and lore to explore, a lead character whose actions are mostly driven by the player, and suitably epic storyline to ground them in. On the other hand, it represented a tremendous dumbing down of its predecessor’s complexity and scope. Where the original Mass Effect was a mess of competing systems set in a vast, mostly empty, universe, its sequel is a streamlined 3rd person shooter set in a serious of linear corridors. It remained a complex and compelling game, simply because it was descending from such Olympian height as the original Mass Effect but it set a bad precedent within Bioware. Future titles would strip away features and systems rather than refining them and each new entry would appear more bare-bones and shallow than its predecessor.
Though it may have been the harbinger of Bioware’s demise, Mass Effect 2 is nothing short of a brilliant game in its own right. The cover-based shooting is serviceable, and the RPG-like abilities spice it up enough to keep any players interested yet the real brilliance of Mass Effect lies, as it always has, in its characters. The squadmates are each introduced in an action-packed mission where the player recruits them for his cause, and then in-between missions while bumming about your ship you can converse with them at leisure and get to know them. As the game progresses you can forge this disparate group of individuals into a real team, focused on a single goal. Each party member has their own personality, their own dreams, and ambitions, their own faults. Sure, some are more remarkable than others (Mordan Solus, in particular, stands out), but all short signs of care in their writing and design.
All of the player’s actions culminate in a final mission that sees your character and the allies he has gathered throwing themselves at an enemy fortress in what amounts to little more than a desperate suicide mission. Here, all the chickens from the rest of the game come home to roost. If you’ve done a good job preparing your crew, your ship, and your equipment for the final mission you’ll breeze through the challenges and make it out the other side with everyone intact. If you screwed up then one by one members of your crew will die. Since they have been so well characterized up to this point, these deaths all mean something. Make enough mistakes and even the player character won’t survive. Every action in the game (and even a few undertaken in the previous Mass Effect) feeds into this final gauntlet satisfyingly.
3. Super Meat Boy – 2010
A long time ago (in internet years anyway), there was a website called Newgrounds, where amateur cartoonists and game developers could post their work for the whole world to see. It was a lawless place, where the edgy humor of the 2000s combined with the creativity of countless bored teenage boys to produce a unique artistic environment. You could toss Bin Laden into a blender, or play a short cartoony game about a school shooting (inspired by nothing less than the Columbine massacre). You could watch humorous cartoons starring your favorite Nintendo characters, filled with the kind of gore and profanity that would never earn the Nintendo Seal of Approval. Pornographic ads ran at the bottom of every page, and plenty of impressionable young men got their first introduction to hentai while browsing through some of the site’s more depraved corners. The humor was low-brow, filled with cheap violence and sick jokes about pee and poop. There were crappy cartoons that barely qualified as animated and plenty of games that just crashed inexplicably on launch. It was a shady, crappy website full of degenerates and losers. It was the best damn site on the internet circa 2001 and don’t you try to tell me otherwise. Of course, all good things must end, and while Newgrounds is still around, it’s a shadow of its former self having lost much of its audience and creators to platforms like YouTube. You can’t go back to the old Newgrounds, but if you want to see a glimpse into that world you just have to play Super Meat Boy; hell, the game’s precursor, Meat Boy, was originally posted on Newgrounds by its lead developer Edmund McMillen.
The core concept of Super Meat Boy is nothing groundbreaking, a little guy made out of meat has his girlfriend kidnapped by a mad scientist and must go through an increasingly absurd gauntlet of platforming challenges to get her back. It’s the same damn plot as Super Mario Brothers, or Adventures of Lolo, or River City Ransom or a hundred other 8-bit Nintendo games. Two things set Super Meat Boy apart from the herd, the first of which is its grotesque and irreverent late 1990s early 2000s attitude. Those of us who grew up on Newgrounds could delight in the nostalgia of it, and those who didn’t could watch through the cracks in their fingers and wonder why anyone over the age of 12 would find this at all amusing. Super Meat Boy indulges in cartoonish violence constantly, with your character exploding into chunks of gore and blood whenever he runs into a buzz-saw or fails to dodge a missile. When you clear the level, you see an instant replay where all your unsuccessful attempts run through the obstacle course simultaneously, getting taken out by the dozen until your one successful run reaches the finish line. Then there’s the poop jokes, the irreverent humor (the main villain is a fetus suspended in a tank), and the pointless cruelty thrown in around the sides.
Yet, attitude alone cannot make a game great, and it’s here that the true genius of Super Meat Boy shines through. The gameplay is simple but so polished that if it’s not perfect it’s about as close as a game is ever likely to get. The early Nintendo games that McMillen imitates were riddled with design flaws and oversights. Lengthy death animation, limited lives, and thumb-blisteringly difficulty were all but certain to reduce players to fits of rage. McMillen keeps the difficulty of the old school games but does away with the flaws. There are no lives, you just keep trying the level until you can clear it. Nor are there any long death animations, instead you are plopped back at the start instantly ready for another go. The controls are as fluid and perfect as any game I’ve ever played. Even though Meat Boy himself, is slippery, he controls like a dream and always responds exactly as you expect him to. You will be killed countless times by the environmental hazards, but never by an unexpected movement. There are few games as perfectly designed as Super Meat Boy and none that are more expert at exploiting my own particular set of nostalgia.
2. Fallout: New Vegas – 2010
The Bethesda open-world RPGs (Oblivion, Fallout 3, Skyrim, Fallout 4) are good games, or more precisely they were good games as Fallout 76 has given ample proof that the company is heading down a dark path towards a place that ends in a series of broken live service crap. I have whiled away many an hour leisurely exploring dungeons, traversing the countryside and checking off side-quests in each of these games. However, it seldom seems like there are any real stakes to the conflict, even during the world-altering main plot-line of Skyrim and Oblivion. I always feel like my character is just crossing items off of a pre-set to-do list rather than making an impact on the world. Blowing up Megaton was just about the only significant decision I had to make in Fallout 3, and it was an action so cartoonishly evil I couldn’t even begin to see why I would. New Vegas fixes that, by giving you a large number of significant decisions to make, all of which can impact your standing with the three major factions or any of the myriad minor factions. You can’t please all the people all the time, and if you’re going to finish the game you will eventually have to make a few enemies.
The moral landscape of New Vegas is also far richer than any of its peers. Three major factions vie for control of the Hoover Dam and New Vegas: The centrist democracy of New California Republic (NCR), the militaristic dictatorship of Caesar’s Legion, and Mr. House the mechanical master of New Vegas. At first glance, Caesar’s legion is the obvious bad guys, the first time you meet them is after they massacred an entire town, burning and crucifying the captives. However, in the cold and often brutal world of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, there is a certain logic to their actions. The town they destroyed was a bunch of slavers taking advantage of the chaotic situation in the Mojave Desert to profit. By destroying them the legion removed a potential threat and also created a powerful deterrent against future misbehavior. Cruel? Certainly. Brutal? Definitely. Effective? Absolutely. Obviously, I don’t agree with the legion’s methods and motivations, but they have a coherent motivation and consistent morality, which is more than I can say for most Bethesda antagonists.
Likewise, the NCR certainly have their good points but they are so mired in corruption and incompetence that they have committed to fighting a war they have neither the resources nor the willpower to win. The closer you get to the front lines of the conflict the more jaded and cynical the soldiers become, with those genuinely enthusiastic about the NCR’s mission in the Mojave being entirely confined to the rear echelons and high ranks. Choosing between the NCR and Caesar’s legion is a legitimate moral quandary, as both sides are allowed space to fully articulate their motivations and goals. You could be swayed by either perspective and the choice ultimately rests on your shoulders.
Of course, there’s always the wildcard option: Play the three major factions off of each other and take the chance to seize control of New Vegas and the Mojave for yourself. Indeed, when I discovered this option for myself during my first play-through of the game a huge smile spread across my face and I realized I was playing the game that Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Oblivion always should have been. One that gives the player a choice not just between the three major distinct factions but a choice to say “screw them all” and betray every last one of them. It was an incredible, freeing moment and I felt the game world (which up to this point had been rather controlled and restrictive) open up before me. I’ve played a few open-world games since then and had a great deal of fun with each, but none had made me feel as though I could influence the world to the same degree.
1. Dark Souls – 2011
Simply put, Dark Souls is the greatest action RPG of its age. Dozens of games have sought to replicate the perfection of Dark Souls, and none, not even its own sequels, have succeeded.
It took a while for the game to grow on me, when I first tried to play it I got frustrated and gave up almost immediately. Yet as I progressed I found myself drawn into the game to the point of obsession. I no longer worried about feeling frustrated or getting angry, I was too involved in the cryptic story, too compelled by the challenges and too excited at my progress to worry about any of that. When I finished Dark Souls for the first time, I immediately started a New Game+ and when I beat that I started a New Game++. Over the course of a few months, I logged well over 100 hours into the game, and even now I’m so far from sick of it that any time I need something especially enjoyable I boot up my copy of Dark Souls and begin a new play-through.
Mechanically it is nearly as perfect as Super Meat Boy, yet unlike Super Meat Boy it is a dazzlingly complex game. There are dozens of ways to approach Dark Souls, you can have your character specialize in two-handed weapons, or shields and swords, or polearms, or light duelist weapons, or magic, or a mix of one or more of these elements. Each feels distinct from one another, but all are equally capable of traversing the game and none feel especially overpowered. Depending on your personality, you’ll be drawn to one style or another naturally. Contrary to what some say, there is no right or wrong way to play Dark Souls. All approaches can be made to work with a bit of practice and finesse.
The mechanics of the game are fully integrated into the sparse storytelling and lore of the universe. The player dies and is resurrected at Bonfires because they are undead, and thus afflicted with a curse which causes them to never know real death. The landscape is populated with other lost souls like the player’s character, those that have died and been reborn so many times that they have lost their touch with reality and become “hollow.” Thus, the fact that they respawn when the player dies or rests at a bonfire makes perfect sense in the universe, they are no more capable of knowing true death than the player character.
The famed difficulty of Dark Souls is also part of this world. It creates an atmosphere of dread and anxiety, especially for players on their first run-through of the game. Knowing that an almost impossible task lays ahead of you is what causes many players to break and quit their quest, essentially becoming one of the Hollow Undead that haunts the game’s landscape. This is an aspect that is often missing from discussions of adding an “easy mode” to the game. Make Dark Souls a walk in the park and you will lose this impact, and impoverish the game as a consequence. The difficulty, like every other aspect of Dark Souls, is a careful stylistic choice aimed at delivering a particular experience to the player.