My Ten Games of the Decade

With everyone and their mother writing games of the year or games of the decade lists at the moment, I’m well aware that the last thing people want is my opinion on the matter. But I write this more as an exercise for myself. And, to be fair, the end of a decade is a biggie.

I want to explore which games have resonated most with me over the past ten years or so. In that, I hope I can also see some blind spots that I can look to rectify during the 20s. I am well aware that I am biased as a player and as a human. I might find that I have played a disappointingly low number of games made by or with marginalised people, or by people outside of my Anglosphere cultural environment.

This list is an opportunity for me to reflect on the impact that games have had on me over a decade in which I have grown enormously. In 2010, I was around 16 years old. I was entering Sixth Form to study for my A-Levels. I was yet to know what I wanted to study at university, or which university I wanted to go to. (I did, however, know that I wanted to go to university.) To think that now, by the end of the 10s, I wrote this in my office in Copenhagen, researching videogames for a living and working towards a PhD, is mindboggling.

Let’s see what I’ve played.

(In chronological order.)


Rock Band 3 (Harmonix, 2010)

The rhythm game genre never went away, but it certainly died a death in the 10s. The Guitar Hero and, later, Rock Band series exploded the rhythm game genre into almost every living room. Countless households were filled with the tap tap tap of plastic drum sets and the click click click of the strum bar. But the controllers needed for these games were bulky, loud and expensive, which perhaps contributed to the genre’s dip in popularity.

Nonetheless, these games bring back fond memories. Although I cut my teeth on Guitar Hero III (Neversoft, 2007), it was the Rock Band series that really swept me up, and in particular the third instalment. People say that these games aren’t useful for learning instruments, and that’s mostly true. But as a drummer myself, endless hours on the plastic set helped develop my skills on top of my lessons. The year I was really into Rock Band 3 was probably the year my drumming has improved the most dramatically.

Rock Band 3 provided the perfect mixture of plenty of room for skill development, but forgiving enough that you could just feel like a rockstar whenever you picked the game up. For absolutely nailing that feeling, Rock Band 3 has earned its spot as one of my games of the decade.


Dark Souls (FromSoftware, 2011)

Anyone who knows me will be entirely unsurprised by this choice. Dark Souls has featured as a key game in my bachelor’s thesis and both my master’s theses, and is highly likely to feature in my PhD thesis. For me, it stands as the greatest game ever made.

I heard about it a year or two after it was released—certainly after its expansion, Artorias of the Abyss (FromSoftware, 2012), had come out—and thought it sounded like a cool, if generic, roleplaying game. Instead, its world resonated with me like no other had before. The reason why I write about Dark Souls so often is because I never feel like I have said all I need to say on it. I never feel like I have gotten to the essence of why the game resonates with me so strongly.

Eric Kain writing for Forbes says that the game’s story has an “archaeological” quality to it (2012), and that’s a description that’s stuck with me. And it’s the way that world ties in so elegantly with the mechanics. I’ll leave it there before I go on for too long. Suffice it to say, I’m not done figuring this game out yet.


Old School RuneScape (Jagex, 2013)

The most popular update Jagex ever made to RuneScape was, it seems, to remove over six years of updates. Despite the idea of a ‘2007-Scape’ being enormously popular, it is still a bold move for a company to make, to release a competitor to your own game that is simply an older version of the ‘same’ game. Not only did they risk cannibalising their own userbase—which could, in turn, lead to a loss of the critical mass that an MMORPG needs for both games—but it also seems to undermine the current game, known as RuneScape 3 (Jagex, 2013), a bit.

Nevertheless, it paid off. Old School gave a powerful nostalgia hit to a generation of players, like me, whose school days were dominated by the game. But it became more than that. Assuming that Old School would be a quick trip down memory lane and then die out, Jagex only assigned it a skeleton team to keep the lights on. Instead it took off in its own right. Now more popular than the ‘main’ game, Old School is unrecognisable from 2007-era RuneScape, current RuneScape 3 and the Old School of 2013.

Trying out interesting new models of design, such as requiring the addition of any new content or any change (that isn’t a bugfix) to be voted on with 75% approval by the playerbase, Old School has redefined the MMORPG genre without simply copying World of Warcraft. Its radical adherence to a specific 2007-era aesthetic and community-based ethic stands Old School apart. It’s helped it become much more than a quick nostalgia hit, and paved the way for other hugely popular ‘old school’ experiences, such as World of Warcraft Classic (Blizzard Entertainment, 2019).


Kenshi (Lo-Fi Games, 2013)

The 2013 date is a little misleading. Kenshi was one of those many games in early access for what felt like forever. And I’m sure it felt like that for Chris Hunt, who began development of the game solo in the mid-to-late 2000s. In 2013, Hunt got the money together to hire a small team and the game went into Steam’s highly variable early access programme, which the game didn’t leave again until December 2018.

Kenshi is janky, cumbersome, demanding, obtuse and baffling. It’s a game with a scope suited only to the biggest AAA developers. And often it shows. But it’s also a game that couldn’t have been made by a big developer.

Kenshi refuses to adhere to established genres or conventions, blending elements of real-time strategy, city-builder, survival, roleplaying game, and open world into a bamboozling, gigantic mess. And for that, it’s brilliant. For all its flaws, I’ve simply never played a game like it.


Cities: Skylines (Colossal Order, 2015)

I’ll never forget the day I spent eight straight hours rebuilding from scratch my city’s railways. I wanted to make more efficient rail transport routes around the city as well as splitting passenger rail from freight rail, and intracity rail from intercity rail. It turned out to be a bigger task than I had anticipated, but I barely noticed the hours go by as I tuned each junction and corner to my liking.

Cities: Skylines is easily the pinnacle of the city-builder, citysim genre, having dethroned Sim City. It has its issues, for sure. The lack of mixed-use zoning and the overreliance on car-based travel are disappointing in particular. But, working around that—and with the help of a few (hundred) mods—Cities offers an unparalleled canvas for painting a city.

Moments of intense concentration, placing things just right, are interspersed with blissful periods of sitting back and just watching the city work. Immensely satisfying, gratifyingly creative and endlessly mesmerising, Cities has spent half the decade as one of my most successful tools for relaxation.


Dark Souls III (FromSoftware, 2016)

A magnificent sendoff for the Dark Souls series. While not quite as tight and resonant as the first, Dark Souls III makes up for it in even tighter combat mechanics—the best combat system of any game of this kind, ever—and stunning environments. From Irithyll of the Boreal Valley to The Ringed City, the third instalment of the series has some of the most memorable locations.

The game’s boss fights are incredibly well made, too. While the usual onslaught can be found, other bosses like the Dancer of the Boreal Valley and High Lord Wolnir show a willingness to slow things down or try something different.

Dark Souls III doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first game, but it does take everything great about Dark Souls and Dark Souls II (FromSoftware, 2014) and turn it into the most polished experience of the three while retaining the enigmatic, immersive worldbuilding.


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, 2017)

There are many valid criticisms of the way Senua’s Sacrifice handles mental health, but at least it tries wholeheartedly. Putting the titular character’s psychosis front and centre of both the game’s narrative and gameplay, Senua’s Sacrifice manages to make an experience that is both intensely personal and epic in scale, fighting gods and mythical creatures.

Perhaps the most notable element of the game are the voices in Senua’s head—the ‘Furies’—which accompany the player throughout their journey. These are extraordinarily well done. They make for an experience so intense that I had to take regular breaks every half hour or so. Few games have affected me like Senua’s Sacrifice. It’s an utterly beautiful game that will stick in my mind for many years to come.


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, 2017)

The story isn’t the best that The Legend of Zelda has ever produced. The enemy variety is also a little lacking. And many would have liked to see more expansive dungeons. But Breath of the Wild has the most alive gameworld of any Zelda game. And certainly the most freedom.

Exploring Hyrule is just a joy in its own right. There’s always something new and interesting to head towards on the horizon, and a hundred little detours to take along the way. And it’s full of beautiful little sequences, like the ‘From the Ground Up’ sidequest. And it feels like one of the few openworld games that lets you explore a genuine wilderness. Above all, Breath of the Wild has heart.


Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo EPD, 2017)

I only briefly played Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo EAD Tokyo, 2007) and never managed to try Galaxy 2 (Nintendo EAD Tokyo, 2010), so Odyssey was my first real return to 3D Mario since Sunshine (Nintendo EAD, 2002), which I absolutely adored.

Odyssey oozes charm. From Mario’s movement to the new tricks you can do with Cappy, from the tight level design to the nostalgic throwbacks. Far too many times, this game left me with a stupid grin on my face.

There are some odd choices, for sure. Why, for example, New Donk City shows other humans who look nothing like Mario and the gang, leaving us to wonder what the hell kind of mutant Mario is, I will never know. But it took Mario to fresh places while retaining its big-hearted, no holds barred joyfulness.


Untitled Goose Game (House House, 2019)

Simply put, no game has ever made me laugh as much as Goose Game. A relatively short game, it’s one with a unique combination of playful freedom, humour and surprisingly solid gameplay.

“It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.” The single most engaging strapline for a game ever? It immediately sold the game to me, certainly. But if Goose Game was simply a very funny premise and nothing more, it would’ve had its brief moment and then been forgotten. Instead, this small, short game recently surpassed a million sales, according to the game’s publisher, and honked its way into our hearts.

Perfect for the premise, the gameplay essentially functions as a stealth game with no consequences. Sneaking around and messing with things and people, but without the violence and without having to restart a level if you get caught. When your scheme falls flat, you simply honk cathartically, run away a little and try again. Goose Game is simply a game of utter joy.


Reflections

So that’s my list. And I surprised myself with some of the selections, as well as some of the exclusions.

League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009), for example, dominated the early 10s for me. I racked up several thousands hours of playtime, and many of my friendships back in the UK today are based on long hours teaming up in League. But, released in late 2009, I excluded it. It does seem odd, however, and reflects the anachronism of singular publishing dates within games due to development via patches. League is entirely unrecognisable now from the 2009 iteration.

Likewise, many games could easily have made the list but didn’t, for whatever reason. Mount & Blade: Warband (TaleWorlds Entertainment, 2010), Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011), Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011), Dys4ia (Anthropy, 2012), Thomas Was Alone (Bithell, 2012), Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar North, 2013), Subnautica (Unknown Worlds Entertainment, 2015), XCOM 2 (Firaxis Games, 2016), Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerilla Games, 2017), What Remains of Edith Finch, (Giant Sparrow, 2017), Divinity: Original Sin II (Larian Studios, 2017), Frostpunk (11 bit studios, 2018), Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Bandai Namco Studios and Sora, 2018) and many, many more are all games I want to mention.

And, of course, I have not nearly played even all of the most well-known titles of the decade.

Reflecting on my list, there is what I suspected: a tendency towards big, AAA, ‘gamer’-type games. In the 20s, I need to spend more time engaging with smaller developers and games on platforms like itch.io. I also live in Copenhagen, a city with a thriving indie scene, and work in a university with a fantastic games programme. I’ve played some awesome games within this community, and I’m looking forward to continuing with that over the years.

Dom Ford
Dom Ford
PhD Fellow

I’m particularly interested in myth, monsters, spatiality and the representation and depiction of history and the past (both real and fictional histories) in digital games.