A Beginners End-of-Decade Guide to the Artistry of Video Games: The 25 Best Games for New Players.

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To the uninitiated, video games are often thought as a secondary art form, often times a supplement to the movie industry, as was painfully obvious at 2019’s Video Game Awards. To many, a game is at its’ best only when it imitates the form of a classic film or TV show.

Here are 25 games from the past decade that have cemented themselves in the discourse of video games as must-plays for their ability to push the uniqueness of what games can do even further, or carved their own subgenre into the always growing list of genres to choose from.

This is by no means a list of the top games of the 2010’s. This is a list of recent games meant to deliver variety to a reader who is not as well versed in the fast-paced nature of the progression of games. As a result, this list will favor games that were made later in the decade, rather than those made earlier.

25. Cities: Skylines (2015)

Among all the different genres, the large-scale simulation genre has the most room to grow, and Cities: Skylines is a wonderful example of such. A far cry from the most popular city builders of old, such as SimCity 2000, Skylines has been praised as one of the most immersive city builders we’ve ever seen.

City Builders and other simulators often struggle with a constant back and forth between realism and fun. Ideally, a city simulator should be true to how the actual event takes place, otherwise it’s not, well, a simulation. On the other hand, taking an event like building a city and making it too realistic takes the “game” out of “video game”, and just turns it into a job.

Skylines finds this balance, and hits it beautifully. While there are resources to account for, such as money, water, electricity, farm-able land, etc., the ability to gain larger-than-life monuments to place in your city, unlockable through specific achievements, pushes the player to micromanage in the most fun way possible, from a scope as big as a block of commercial buildings to a single household.

24. SUPERHOT (2016)

Sometimes a mechanic can also be the story for a game, and SUPERHOT pushes that idea to it’s absolute fullest. With a theme and aesthetic imitating that of a Hollywood stereotype of a hacker’s computer, this first-person shooter operates entirely on one very creative mechanic — time only moves when you do.

The game, released by the aptly-titled indie developer Superhot Team, is light on the story. Themes of a struggle for control set the tone for the ambiance of the game going forward, but the game does little else to justify it’s game play.

However, minimal story is acceptable when the entire game revolves around turning one of the most recognizable genre tropes on it’s head. First Person Shooters (FPS) the likes of Halo and Call of Duty are known for, above else, being chaotic and fast-paced. Introducing a mechanic that allows you to stop indefinitely and think about your next move is a brilliant way to introduce strategy elements while still keeping the FPS genre qualities true to form.

23. Shadow of the Colossus (2018)

Shadow of the Colossus was originally released in 2005 by SCE Japan Studio, and it was an OK game. However, the game was later remastered in 2018, and with it came the graphical updates that the game concept deserved.

The game follows Wander, a young man tasked with taking down the 16 legendary Colossi, all with their own unique looks and habits. While defeating just 16 enemies sounds like a short game, these enemies are, quite literally, larger than life.

Climbing up a Colossus to defeat it is comparable to scaling a cliff side, and the weight of facing up against a towering stone beast in this action-adventure game runs chills down the spine in a way that embraces the latest technology of the PS4.

22. DOOM (2016)

The first of the mainstream first person shooters on the list, DOOM does the exact opposite of SUPERHOT, and focuses on cranking up the intensity to 11 at the drop of a hat.

The goal of the game is simple, and effective. Kill the demons in the flashiest way possible. As opposed to many modern shooters that are clouded with over-saturation of moving parts, DOOM’s art direction allows for the enemies to stand out, without sacrificing the interesting details of the surrounding hellscape.

DOOM’s in-your-face gore and violence refuses to take away from the more intricate game mechanics that play out as a semi-roguelike, and for that reason, it will go down as what it was made to be — a notoriously good time.

21. Limbo (2010)

The term “walking simulator” was birthed around a decade ago as a sarcastic and derogatory phrase for games that have stripped down gameplay mechanics, a shorthand way to designate “boring” games all into one subgenre. Limbo takes this description in stride and commits to it’s minimal gameplay, enhancing the grim implied visual story of an unnamed protagonist with black and white noir-esque visuals reminiscent of early 20th century German Expressionism.

Limbo has the player control an unnamed boy who awakens at “the edge of hell” and must make his way through a series of 2 dimensional puzzles.

The game spawned a trend of similarly bleak and restless side-scrolling platformers that use the stationary background to tell simple yet effective stories, acting as a spiritual predecessor to games like Inside (2016).

20. Minecraft (2011)

It’s Minecraft, man. Everyone knows what it is.

19. God of War (2018)

In every way possible, the God of War series is larger than life, and the latest installment only proves it. Despite God of War’s fantastic orchestral score and tight, fast gameplay mechanics, two things make God of War stand out from it’s predecessors — the story and the boss fights.

The game embraces a unique and nuanced story that can only be told by the series after multiple games of building the main character, Kratos, up as a merciless and bloodthirsty anti-hero. Forced to pick up the pieces of his own mistakes and quarrels with the gods, Kratos must re-learn what it means to be truly intimate as he grieves for his own losses while struggling to raise his son.

God of War is broken up primarily by cut scenes and story exposition, and secondarily by large, cinematic boss fights. Kratos battles 20, 30 foot tall mythological foes from Norse mythology as they stare back down into the eyes of the player, making the enemies that much more intimidating and relieving to conquer.

18. Untitled Goose Game (2019)

Want an example of a recent game that’s bigger than games itself? Look no further than Goose Game. Ever since it’s tease 2 years ago, House House’s indie sensation has been the talk of the games industry and beyond.

The concept of the game is simple — you’re a goose, and you’re here to cause problems. Pick items up, honk at oncoming humans, whatever you need to do to run through this small town and leave destruction in your wake.

Much of the games blood, sweat and tears very obviously went into the comedic timing of the game — which is what primes it as a surefire vessel for viral videos.

17. Life Is Strange (2015)

Life Is Strange came right in the middle of the peak of the “Telltale” game, a series of decision based, story heavy games based off TV series such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. However, Life is Strange is a completely original graphic adventure from Square Enix that meshes realism with fantasy.

Split up into just 5 episodes, this series takes your own decisions and forces the consequences upon you in an emotionally heavy manner by viewing them through the lens of unique, yet relate-able characters.

Life is Strange, as it’s name dictates, blends together several emotional issues such as rape, sexism, sexual identity, friendship, parenthood, ableism, and classism. The game also contains bite-sized hints of various game genres, a shooting sequence here and a puzzle sequence there. However, most of the game play comes in the form of Quick-Time Events (QTE).

16. The Witcher 3 (2015)

I’ll come clean. I’m not a big fan of The Witcher 3. It’s a very long game that I couldn’t latch onto for some reason. However, even I cannot ignore the marvel of world-building that the game applies to it’s own fantasy continent. It’s no surprise that the IP has seen both a TV show and movie in development in the years following it’s release.

This action RPG follows Geralt, a cursed (or blessed, depending on perspective) mercenary that fends off magical incursions for a rather steep monetary cost. Per the story of the game, you must traverse the negative connotations surrounding the title of “Witcher”, as well as a rich personal history between Geralt’s jaded mindset and the rest of the cast.

CD Projekt Red delivered a truly larger than life game, of which the player can immerse themselves in for 50 hours without scratching the surface of all the world has to offer.

15. Mass Effect 2 (2011) — or Skyrim (2011)

Mass Effect’s second installment is regarded as one of the best games of the decade, almost purely for it’s ability to balance the action RPG genre with intricate stories that branch off into different paths based on the decisions made by the player throughout the game.

The game’s story is told through the eyes of the playable character, Commander Shepard, who works as a soldier in the vast cosmos in the 22nd century. The story delves into sci-fi equivalencies involving terrorism, morality surround AI, racism, and imperialism.

The Mass Effect series has been hugely important for RPG’s with a built in morality system, in the same way that games like Skyrim have done. Without games like these, more recent RPG hits like The Outer Worlds (2019) would not exist.

14. Divinity: Original Sin (2014)

A classical RPG game with fantasy elements, Original Sin prides itself on intense, well balanced top-down turn based combat with cooperative multiplayer in mind.

Eventually, you would figure that a Tolkien-inspired fantasy world with orcs and whatnot would get stale after all this time, but Divinity takes these staples and creates a whole new and unique world to live in, fully able to be immersed in for the entirety of the incredibly long 80 hour game.

What constitutes this modernization cannot be fully explored without massive spoilers, but rest assured that this entry into the RPG series represents the next step forward in the direction that the genre has and most likely will continue to follow in the years to come.

13. Night in the Woods (2017)

As video game development continues to grow more accessible, and the indie game scene matures, we are gifted with more and more unique stories to play through, and no story is uniquely introspective and self-aware as Night in the Woods.

This single-player adventure game from Infinite Fall uses light platforming and other mini game-esque game design to tell the story of Mae, a zoomorphic teenager that comes back to her small home town from college as a dropout without any explanation.

What really shines in this game is the dialogue and characterization. Mae is written as a overly sarcastic, carefully guarded persona who is, quietly, brutally honest about her own shortcomings, and very believably so.

The rest of the game revolves around exploring the inner mind of Mae, as well as her relationship with her 3 best friends, her parents, and the town itself, all culminating in a comically earnest story of mental illness, coming of age, empathy, sexual orientation, and mental illness — again.

12. Portal 2 (2011)

Valve’s Portal 2 is not only widely regarded as one of the best games of the decade, but one of the most peculiar and interesting games of all time.

Portal 2, in concept, is very simple, with just one main mechanic. You are given a portal gun which makes an entrance and exit through space, and you must use this to your advantage to clear puzzle after puzzle. However, this simple mechanic is pushed to it’s absolute limit as the difficulty increases.

Along with an addictive game mechanic, Portal 2 tells a gripping story about what it means to have humanity and agency with only 3 characters: the playable character, and two robots named Wheatly and GLaDOS.

11. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)

Mario games are all time honored classics, guaranteed to contain infectious music, simple yet effective stories, and wonderful worlds with a cohesive art direction. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is no different, but where it truly sets itself apart from the rest of the 3D platforming genre lies in it’s controls.

Galaxy’s level design is centered around tiny little planets that Mario can jump, hop and skip around in, and maneuvering Mario on these platforms has never felt better or given the player so much confidence in what they can do.

Combine Mario’s extraordinarily tight controls with his increased repertoire of moves and powerups, and Galaxy 2 comes off as a platforming heaven only rivaled by it’s relatives within the series, Mario 64 and Mario Odyssey.

10. Dark Souls 2 (2014) — or Hollow Knight (2017)

Straight from the depths of hell is this absolutely soul-crushingly hard RPG game where the only reprieve from constant anxiety are the campfires, which act as beacons of hope for the character and player alike. Since the Dark Souls series began, these fireplaces have become a staple in many RPG series, as recently as Star Wars: Fallen Order.

Dark Souls functions as a litmus test for what quantifies as a “hard game”, by focusing entirely on unforgiving medieval combat while the grey, worn down castle ruins that subtly inform the player of the expansive lore without any additional effort.

Without the Dark Souls series, the rest of From Software’s iconic run of games would have little reason to exist in the game history books, and DS2 hits a convenient middle ground in the series between difficult combat and quality of life improvements.

For a more lighthearted and approachable game with the same philosophy towards ambiance and difficulty, see indie developer Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight, which is lighter on the realistic RPG and heavier on the cartoony exploration-based Metroidvania.

9. Journey (2012)

Journey is another installment of the indie movement of games that have taken off this decade. Created by Thatgamecompany, this particularly artsy action-adventure is told entirely through visual and auditory cues, completely wordless in it’s delivery.

The story focuses on a cloaked figure discovering the remnants of a dormant society, traversing through all sorts of environmental hurdles, from the desert sandstorms to the mountain’s high wind speeds.

Journey is so earnest in nature that it’s subtly-told story comes off as wholly personal and honest, a trait that infects the rest of the game, from it’s art direction to it’s orchestral musical score that unravels itself over time.

8. Nier: Automata (2017)

Nier is probably the most complicated game on this list, and for once, that’s to a games credit. Nier’s crown jewel lies in it’s story and music, the two of which are broken up into more digestible “stories” with a wide range of gameplay, from 3d hack-and-slash to 2d top-down puzzles and shooters.

Nearly all of Nier: Automata’s music is diegetic and lives in the world it is meant to convey, often times using the voices of the various enemy robots to vocally harmonize with the track. The best example of this is the Amusement Park track.

The twisting and turning stories implement a complicated logic system of artificial intelligence common in many sci-fi stories, but the core themes drive home as if it were pure non-fiction. Following android soldiers 2B and 9S, the player explores what it means to be truly alive with genuine free will, as well as the brutal nature of war, complete with your traditional overly-charismatic anime boys and girls.

7. Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)

Similar to the previously, although briefly mentioned Hollow Knight, OatBF is a metroidvania-type exploration through a once great but now squandered forest, as it follows Ori through burrows and groves with rich color palettes as he attempts to revive his homeland after a heartbreaking prologue that can only be compared to the likes of Pixar’s Up.

OatBF sends a very realistic message on climate change and the conservation of nature, filtered through a cosmic and wondrous plot and setting as the player unlocks new upgrades that gives them access into the deeper parts of the forest lost to the cataclysmic event.

Ori’s controls are carefully mapped out and reminiscent of the players place in the story, as the player feels weak, slow and limited in his movement at the start of the game, but evolves into a high flying bastion of platforming by the end.

6. The Last of Us (2013)

In the late aughts and the early 2010’s, the Zombie story took over the world. Movies, TV, video games. If it wasn’t a zombie related IP, they were going to find out how to insert zombies somewhere into it on the side. There is one story in particular that stands out from the sea of Walking Dead’s, and that’s Naughty Dog’s foray into action-adventure survival horror.

The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, the playable character, who must guide a young girl named Ellie through the post-apocalyptic ruins of society as they dodge zombie mutants and harmful humans alike.

While the gameplay, combat options, and music are all, at the very least, acceptable, and at the very most, wonderful, the story of Joel and Ellie bonding through shared trauma is what makes this game stand out. Specifically, Ellie’s coming of age story, a plot point very rare in the zombie survival genre, which will be further explored in the soon coming sequel that revolves around a now grown up Ellie.

5. Celeste (2018)

To me, Celeste is the most compellingly difficult game the platforming genre has to offer. Often times, platforming games acknowledge the struggle a player has with the game, and entices them with some sort of eye candy or final goal to see the game through. In Celeste, however, the struggle is the game.

Playing Celeste for the first time, you will die. A lot. And the game is ready for this, even if you aren’t, because your own struggles to complete this game is reflected back in the from of Madeline, the playable character who toils with herself and her own confidence over whether or not she is able to climb Celeste Mountain. Throughout the story, Madeline meets several lovable yet flawed characters, and deals with her own struggle with depression.

The game starts you off from the very beginning with just 3 moves — a jump, a wall climb, and a dash. From here on, you have everything you need to beat the entire game. Progression comes not in the form of character upgrades a la Hollow Knight, but in completing the short sections of each level that can be achieved in only a couple of seconds, making the games challenge more manageable.

4. Stardew Valley (2016)

Farming Simulator? No, more like everything simulator. ConcernedApe’s simulation RPG game is a farming game, a dungeon crawler, and a dating simulator rolled all in one, and it balances the three facets very delicately.

Stardew’s secret to success is in it’s good writing and high quality of life for the player. All 28 of the townsfolk have their own personalities, patterns, traits, likes, dislikes, and insecurities.

Heavily inspired by the Japanese Harvest Moon series, Stardew continues to roll out updates that help build your farm and find your lover in new and exciting ways, most recently adding a whole new tier of tools.

Stardew has reset the simulation genre in a stylish way, and some games have already implemented it’s multifaceted approach to immersing the player in a fantasy farm life.

3. Persona 5 (2016)

Persona is the only game on this list that can be classified as a “spin-off”, and at number 3, that says a lot about its’ quality. The long standing Persona series is an offshoot of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series, marked by highly stylized combat and world building, as well as head-banging battle themes and otherwise incredible acid-jazz music.

Persona 5 takes all of the injustice existing in the real world, acknowledging the slave-like manner of the for-profit prison system and corporate greed, and gives a group of troubled teenagers the ultimate gift — agency. Through a mystical power on their phone, the protagonists can enter the hearts of their targets and reshape them in their image, purging them of whatever social ill caused them to embrace whatever flaw they may have.

The game follows a player-named protagonist, code-named Joker, who summons a Persona to assist in his battles, kind of similar to the stands in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.

The game blends a highly stylized color-based user interface with high quality anime cut-scenes in order to further bolster the story, a trend that no doubt has and will be brought back to infuse games with their own distinct sense of personality.

Also, Life Will Change is the best video game theme in recent memory.

2. Undertale (2015)

Everyone either loves it or hates it, which means it has to be on here. Undertale is the internet generation-defining game by Toby Fox, originally created as a fan-made homage/parody of Nintendo’s top down RPG series Mother.

Undertale contains a unique combat style, a compelling story of being caught in the middle of a war that long predates the main protagonist, and, above all else, comedy.

The comedy, along with the music, is what really cemented this game in history. The writing of the game is heavily inspired by early 2010’s internet culture, and the music is filled with 8-bit melodies and thrashing drum-n-bass inspired battle anthems that ooze with as much personality as the rest of the game.

While there are plenty of indie games to smash through the AAA studio industry, and plenty of games to implement this kind of humor, it’s difficult to imagine another game ever replicating what Undertale did to the video game industry and culture.

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

When the latest Zelda game was released 3 years ago, the game received critical acclaim the likes of which are reserved for the status of GOAT. However, much of the games hype was not about what the game was, but what it means for Zelda games going forward.

BotW completely discards the Zelda formula and delivers perhaps the most cohesive open world game ever seen. By the end of the starting tutorial on the Great Plateau, Link is given 4 runes that interact with the world, and serve as the foundation for the rest of the game, in addition to the intricate weather and elemental system the likes of which have never been seen in a game this big.

Most of the 4 year development process for the game was spent fine tuning this physics engine, and now that they have the engine to build upon, rather than start from scratch, Nintendo can now turn it’s eye towards the facets of the game that were lacking in BotW, such as the lacking story line, which comes off as unimportant and detached from time.

For now, the world awaits the Breath of the Wild sequel in the 2020’s, to see what can be improved on from this golden goose of a world-building system and physics engine.

So there’s the list. I struggled with leaving off certain games, such as Mario Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2, as well as a slew of indie games, but ultimately felt that these game types were adequately represented, if anyone is curious about certain omissions such as these two.

Chicago, IL. I write about games and music.

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