For this last part of my games of the decade series, I want to shout out some honorable mentions – games that provided me so seriously affecting experiences, were artful in execution, or otherwise stuck with me past the initial playthrough.
Journey – one of my absolute favorite short games, Journey tells a beautiful, moving story without any words. It makes use of an excellent art style, fantastic scoring, and simple gameplay mechanics to create a cohesive world and setting and tell a story of despair and hope. Well worth its small cost and short playtime!
Doki Doki Literature Club – I know, I only recently played it and wrote about it already, but I think quite often since then about the ways in which the game delivers a multi-layered series of horrors – both on-screen and in the game’s subtle and unsubtle manipulations and creation of unease. It then uses the mechanics introduced to layer in tons of additional content for those willing to look – the way the game’s files are used in act 2, for instance, before you would know about that mechanic on a first playthrough, but afterwards…easy to find. The teases for a new game from Team Salvato, while it hasn’t materialized yet, are interesting and I certainly hope that all the easter eggs and hints at Project Libitina come to pass!
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – This title was very affecting to me, and what I like the most about it with some space is how much of the story is left up to interpretation. I think something I could (and might!) write at length about is how modern storytelling tends to be very on-the-nose – everything is told to you clearly, left without ambiguity and uncertainty, and how that harms the works they are tied to because it leaves no space for the observer to fill in their own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Hellblade does a phenomenal job of leaving space open for interpretation – leaving wide margins around plot events such that you can both come to understand the beats of the story in a definitive, factual way, while also having room to interpret things – how did the characters feel, why did these things happen, etc. Given the theme of Hellblade, it works exceptionally well – Senua is something of an unreliable narrator, but rather than pulling a Ted from How I Met Your Mother and simply telling you the story, you see it through her unreliable eyes, and the game weaves that doubt in through a variety of cues.
Star Wars The Old Republic – I haven’t played as much of this one as I would like, but I was there for launch – Collector’s Edition even! – and I recently rolled a new character and tried to get more into this one. I think TOR is objectively a decent game, and I think the things it has tried have lent a larger toolbox to the larger MMO space. We could debate on the viability of some of these things – the monetization model in the F2P system, the use of the Bioware-style storytelling and choice models to push along through the events of the game – but ultimately, I think the game is worth a look in at least once for MMO fans, even if it ultimately isn’t your cup of tea.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – It seemed like Zelda as a franchise was going to forever be bound to its original design paradigm – not that it was a bad one, but it felt that much like with Mario, Nintendo wouldn’t risk experimenting as much with one of their S-tier franchises. BotW proved the world wrong, taking some familiar Zelda concepts but expanding them in new ways. Durability for gear, tons of open world gameplay including a bunch of mini-dungeons waiting to be discovered, BotW is a treat. I never fully finished it (maybe the only person with the Wii U version of the game!) but it was a fun time and perhaps now is the time to buy it for Switch and bring that with me more often? Also worth noting – BotW is one of the first Zelda games ever to get a direct sequel (barring perhaps Ocarina of Time, although Majora’s Mask as a direct sequel is debateable). BotW modernizes Zelda in a lot of really good ways, and I can’t wait to see what the future of the franchise holds.
Cities: Skylines – This one is just a fun title that makes for a really great modern take on city building. After the disaster of the EA-led Simcity reboot, the genre of city building was primed for something new and fresh to come to the surface, and Cities Skylines definitely was that. It is, in fact, the title in the genre with the most playtime from me – because it is so flexible, interesting, and brings a ton of management features forward that feel intuitive and in-depth, like transit management. Sure, it has some weaknesses (arguably, the best way to manage traffic is to build a single two-way road with no stops that snakes through your town!) but the overall experience is well-made and fun to play.
Planet Coaster – Another just plain fun title on my list, Planet Coaster is a game I really enjoyed (so much so that I might be purchasing Planet Zoo from the same developer tonight) because it allows for a ton of different things that modern technology can bring to the genre. Want to ride your rollercoaster? You can (sort of)! Want to design a detailed rollercoaster of your own that has accurate physics and properly calculated speeds (which you can also make go completely wild by pushing corkscrews and rapid turns into the model)? You get that too! It’s flexible, fun, and allows for a lot of experimentation – one of my favorite parks has coasters stacked in such a way that they often wind through each other.
Skyrim – I’m going to be completely honest here – I actually kind of…don’t like Skyrim? Like, I get it – huge open world, massively open-ended character development explored almost entirely through gameplay, pretty good graphics, and tons of different activities with player agency laced throughout. That is great – I do think that many MMOs can learn from the sort of open-endedness that Skyrim offers, but I also think it is an object lesson in where gameplay needs to come in stronger. For me, Skyrim often hits points where the gameplay is just kind of dull and listless, with choice paralysis overtaking me such that I never know how to really build my character and I end up withdrawing from the experience. Objectively, I think it is a great game, but subjectively, it definitely isn’t for me. That’s without the business practices of Todd Howard’s Bethesda, releasing the game, re-releasing it with new models and high-resolution textures, then releasing it for Switch, then VR, leaving Bethesda with 7 different versions of the game (counting each platform) released over 6 years!
Mortal Kombat (9) – Mortal Kombat was one of my favorite games as a child (nobody tell Joe Lieberman) and to see the various titles released in the franchise as I got older flounder was disappointing – the first of many moments of disappointing adulthood. Luckily, free of Midway and with the failure of MK vs DC, Netherrealm Studios got to take a stab at an unfettered reboot of the franchise with MK9 – a game that was a fantastic return to form. The answer to how to modernize MK in a world with increasingly more pixelated violence was to turn the dial up past silly – X-Ray attacks, new and more insane fatalities, and harder-hitting gameplay with stronger sound design that makes every hit sound meaty and painful. The franchise since MK9 has been pretty good, and it even led to Netherrealm getting a second stab at DC via the much better Injustice series of fighting games, and that led to a WWE game for mobile with wrestlers as superheroes which is, well….maybe we just shouldn’t talk about that one. But, nonetheless, from the ashes of Midway rises Netherrealm, and the games they’ve built since that have been mostly all great!
Okay, so that list grew a bit to also include “games that I found fun” but nonetheless, with the decade business done, time to focus forward!