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The Games of the Decade (plus one year): 2000-2010

by Xander Markham on 12/31/10 04:36:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It's the end of December, so 'Game of the Year' lists are inevitably flooding the internet. Given how I had yet to discover Gamasutra in 2009 (what an empty life I must have lead!), I thought a 'Game of the Decade' list would provide something a little different and more interesting. As you'd expect, narrowing ten years' worth of gaming down to a list of ten was far from easy, so the titles that finally earned their places were chosen not only for their exceptional gameplay, but also influence on subsequent games and willingness to push the medium forward in some way. It's not remotely scientific or democratic – it's all personal preference when all's said and done – but hopefully it'll get some discussion going about the most revelatory game experiences you've had over the past eleven years.

10. Halo: Combat Evolved

Platform: Xbox/PC
Released: November 2001
Developer: Bungie

For all the bombast and diminishing returns of its sequels, none have come close to the impact or refinement of the original Halo. Although its core gameplay comprised familiar sci-fi settings and reams of aliens to gun down with a multi-coloured arsenal, it was the little nuances it introduced that have become genre staples ever since. Regenerating health, vehicular combat and separate grenade button are most noticeable, but the 'thirty seconds of fun' level structure, fully-developed sci-fi story and universe, distinctive enemy tactics and technologies, big-budget presentation and exceptionally well-balanced weapon set (a knowledge of when and how to use each gun is a prerequisite for conquering the higher difficulties) changed the face of the FPS for the 21st Century. Not only that, but its impact extended beyond the boundaries of the game itself: it also marked the moment that the genre began its move from PC-centric towards console gamers, while also being the catalyst for Microsoft's Xbox to emerge as a true contender to Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's GameCube. No coincidence that even today, it's Microsoft's console that dominates the console FPS scene. Few games have lived up to their subtitle as completely as Halo.

9. Braid

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade, PC/Mac, PS3, Linux
Released: August 2008
Developer: Number None Inc.

Who could have imagined that a 2D platformer could host one of the most evocative and thematically debated gaming stories of the past decade? Designer Jonathan Blow, who financed the three-year development on his own and called in webcomic artist David Hellman for the distinctive visual style, upended not only expectations of a genre surviving solely on nostalgic value and Nintendo's marketing budgets, but also the kinds of story that games could tell and how they could be told. Using that most decrepit of motivational tropes as a starting point (a princess has been kidnapped by a monster!), Blow uses the game's temporal-control mechanic to make philosophical arguments on the nature of time, memory, regret and transient perspectives, as well as a comment on the accepted design trends the games industry had slipped into. Blow has wisely resisted commenting directly on the themes his games was supposed to evoke, leaving the story open for players to apply their own readings. Although the genre still resides almost entirely within a Nintendo monopoly, Blow's deconstruction has made it that much more difficult for the likes of New Super Mario Bros Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns to conceal their lack of ambition.

8. Grand Theft Auto III

Platform: PS2, Xbox, PC/Mac
Released: October 2001
Developer: DMA Design

Later games may have expanded the size of the cities and the scope of possibilities, but Grand Theft Auto III was where the series juggernaut really started moving. Playing the game for the first time was a stunning experience, throwing the player into a bustling city and giving them the freedom to explore and discover untold possibilities for criminal fun was at once overwhelming and thrilling like nothing before. The top-down GTAs that preceded III were fun, but hardly pushing boundaries. By contrast, testing the boundaries of Liberty City drew the same awe-inspired gasps as jumping into the first painting in Super Mario 64, only blown up to metropolitan scale. III refined the series' now trademark storytelling style, lacing social commentary with cynical humour, but its most memorable moments emerged from player experimentation with what they could get away with. It was eventually important to find a balance between getting away with necessary evils and not tipping into that crucial third star of police attention, but those early standoffs on the roof of a parking lot, priming a rocket launcher as a law enforcement chopper soared overhead with spotlight glaring, are the kinds of memories that lifetimes of gaming are built upon.

7. Super Mario Galaxy 2

Platform: Wii
Released: May 2010
Developer: Nintendo

It may be the least innovative game on this list, but as a pure gaming experience Mario's second intergalactic outing is skies above any competition. The original Galaxy was bursting with astonishing ideas but trapped by first-outing syndrome, with thinking still based on a semi-open world Super Mario 64 model that never quite sat comfortably with Galaxy's interstellar ethos and execution that never quite brought the best out of its formidable concepts. Second time around, Shigeru Miyamoto's team had the experience to focus the level design into tighter, more densely packed spaces and the gameplay into an obstacle-course ethos more reminiscent of Mario's 2D platforming days than his move in 3D. The challenge was increased but managed by a difficulty curve implemented so elegant that conquering each new course was like building a muscle, asking slightly more of the player than they might initially be comfortable with but never pushing so far as to induce frustration. The new items were infinitely more enjoyable to use than its predecessor's irritating bee and spring suits, while Yoshi was finally given an outing worthy of such a beloved character, with his every appearance a fresh delight. In short, Galaxy 2 is everything a sequel should be: the perfection of a magnificent original concept that one game couldn't quite do justice to, a treat of intergalactic proportions and one of the brightest stars shining on the decade's gaming firmament.

6. The Void
Platform: PC
Released: April 2008
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge

Writing about The Void feels like a double-edged sword, because while it is a game that deserves to be debated and dissected endlessly, each word dilutes an experience that is best taken without preconceptions. If the first steps in GTA III's Liberty City blew minds by offering untold possibilities, The Void achieves an even more powerful effect by quite the opposite means. Your first reaction to entering The Void is to notice everything that's missing, a complete isolation from every comfort blanket that games provide to ease their players in gently. If the game had to be classified in any one genre it would be survival horror, but a survival horror game where every second in play is a battle against ever encroaching death – how you interpret that term within the game's context is one of its many fascinating depths – with everything you see and learn seemingly lingering for the opportunity to stab you in the back the moment you mistakenly start believing you're getting the hang of it. The serene music and pacing belies the agoraphobic panic the game induces at its whim, with every bit of progress made both inducing delirious ecstasy at your making inroads against one of the most unforgiving difficulty settings modern gaming has known, but tinged with the pressure that every advancement would only bring new layers of complexity to overcome. The Void is a true horror experience told in a way that only the games medium can, that turns the player into their own worst enemy.

5. killer7

Platform: Nintendo GameCube, PS2
Released: June 2005
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture

Designer Goichi Suda's outward excesses hide one of gaming's most incisive and observant writers. That quality is summed up by killer7, a game which offers copious quantities of flowing blood, scenes depicting a sado-masochistic relationship between a crippled old man and his nurse, Resident Evil-style obscure puzzles and a trashy 'multiple personality' conceit, yet doubles up as a complex and razor-sharp satire on labyrinthine political structures. Divisive to appropriate extremes, the game built Suda's name on a devoted cult following despite receiving notoriously scathing reviews from the likes of GamePro. Like many great games, its gameplay is intimately tied into its aesthetics, but the tripper is that the relationship plays out in reverse: if you don't understand what the game's style is trying to say, its substance will prove similarly elusive. The on-rails movement is not the pointless restriction it is in most games, but an effective device to prevent players from missing vital items and pieces of information, while arguably adding a layer of foreshadowing to one of the game's key themes of the power of external manipulation. Perhaps one of the problems killer7's detractors have is that Suda has not only never stated what his game's themes are, but refuses to even acknowledge that there are any. Braid's conclusion, for example, makes it obvious that the player is going to have to make sense of it through interpretation, yet Suda's game could easily be seen as nothing more than a rather unwieldy niche title with a lot of violence and a mostly incomprehensible story. Yet give a second thought to what lies beneath the bonkers exterior and you'll find a game as tightly written and designed as any on this list. Just as Garcian Smith uses his vision ring to see the hidden truth behind his fallen world, killer7 is a game that demands to be seen through a new set of eyes.

4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Platforms: N64, Nintendo GameCube, Wii (Virtual Console)
Released: April 2000
Developers: Nintendo

Being forced to work under tight conditions has inspired many famous feats of creativity and in having to produce in less than two years a sequel to a game commonly considered as one of the greatest in the medium's history, Aonuma and Koizumi managed something remarkable by taking everything that was loved about Ocarina of Time – its scale, its epic interpretation of the Zelda mythology, its sprawling dungeons – and turning them upside down. Where its predecessor told the story of one boy saving the world, Majora showed a boy discovering the stories of people who made the world worth saving. Each inhabitant of Termina is to their world what a dungeon was to Ocarina, yielding even the same rewards for solving their mysteries. Where in Ocarina the key rewards were items to empower the hero, in Majora the most vital rewards are masks, representative of the people who gave them to you as thanks for your benevolence in helping them. The game presents its masks in the way many tribal cultures see them, as a captured spirit whose face can be worn to gain their power and wisdom. When Link solves a puzzle using one of the masks he has acquired, it is no longer a solitary hero overcoming an obstacle, it is him drawing on his friends and memories for the power to keep pushing forward on his quest to save them before their world ends. With Zelda's reputation having been built on providing epic quests and worlds to be saved, Majora's reminder that the greatest adventures take place in the meeting of hearts is perhaps the bravest road the series has taken.

3. Pathologic

Platform: PC
Released: June 2005
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge

A UK newspaper critic recently made the observation that The Wire was television's Great American Novel. Following that logic through, Pathologic is gaming's Great Russian Novel. Anyone familiar with the work of Fyodor Dostoyevski will immediately see the same bleak fascination with the darker corners of the human condition and the fragility of civilised social structures. If I had to pick a 'Developer of the Decade', Ice-Pick Lodge would be my choice. No-one else has been so brave in not just pushing the limits of storytelling in the gaming form, but asking whether an experience has to be enjoyable to be considered 'good' or worthwhile. Just as The Void finds meaning by pushing the player through great anguish, Pathologic is similarly merciless. Ice-Pick Lodge's games are tugs-of-war between your determination to reach the finish line and the developer's determination to make you quit. Thematically, Pathologic is a game obsessed with death and, more importantly, the consequences of death. It is not the player's demise that is the issue - as in most games, if anything that's a minor frustration. Instead, it is the deaths of the other characters populating the game that will come to weigh so very heavily on your mind. Keeping the populace of the game's plague-ridden town alive is vital to your success, yet early mistakes can have repercussions way down the line which may put enormous blocks in your path to solve the mystery of what behind the sudden outbreak. Pathologic is a staggering achievement in game design, as engrossing as it is alienating and as ultimately rewarding as it is punishing. Where The Void forces the player to battle to escape deathly isolation, Pathologic instead tasks you with saving a collapsing community, all the while raising questions about whether human nature is worth saving at all.

2. Deus Ex

Platform: PC/Mac, PS2
Released: June 2000
Developer: Ion Storm

The irony of Deus Ex is that despite being a game about breaking out of the limits of the human form, players are given the opportunity to express themselves in a more natural way than any game since. Warren Spector, inspired by the successful integration of player choice into his previous title System Shock and the newfound trendiness of cyberpunk thanks to the astronomical success of The Matrix in cinemas the previous year, designed the game to be “an immersive simulation game in that you are made to feel you're actually in the game world with as little as possible getting in the way of the experience of 'being there.'” The game foregoes all the design tropes and rules which still hold sway over many of the top new releases today: there are no puzzles, no pre-set action moments for the player to wander into, no forced redirections around contrived path blockades. The player's avatar has no back-story or personality other than a suitably evocative name (JC Denton). Apart from a handful of story cues, many of which vary substantially dependant upon choices made over the course of the adventure, the player is left to create their own drama and to form their own character. Everything in the game revolves and grows around the player: JC Denton is literally built by the manner he is moved through the game, with the ream of RPG elements allowing almost complete personalisation of the protagonist they end up controlling, while dialogue trees in cutscenes give room to develop some semblance of a personality. The most depressing thing about Deus Ex is how little influence it has had over subsequent gaming culture. As the games industry grew and became more mainstream, much of the reckless experimentation that produced many of the greatest games of the late '90s was left behind in favour of a formula mentality. Deus Ex feels like a fitting send-off to an era of great game design discovery and a look back to a time when the machine of game production was still powered by a human soul.

GAME OF THE DECADE 2000-2010: No More Heroes

Platform: Wii
Release: December 2007
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture

I can see this being a controversial choice for this list alone, let alone as the ultimate winner. Most of the games on this list received significantly greater critical acclaim, not forgetting the ones I had to leave out. (Honourable mention here to Portal and Shadow of the Colossus, both of which I was trying to find a place for right up to the end). Yet throughout my long deliberations about where to rank each of the chosen titles, there was never any question that No More Heroes would take the top spot. Every game on the list has done something special to earn its place – Halo for changing the shape and culture of a genre, Braid for deconstructing one, Grand Theft Auto III for building a city of opportunities, Super Mario Galaxy 2 just for being wonderful, The Void for brilliantly using the player's sense of self against them, killer7 for its deceptive intelligence, Majora's Mask for revealing Zelda's heart, Pathologic for being a harrowing work of interactive theatre and Deus Ex for sheer ambition – yet none did quite so many of those things all at once as Goichi Suda's game, and with such unmitigated glee. No More Heroes is a deranged and iconoclastic love-letter to videogames and their players, scrawled in blood from a heart ripped out off a enemy's chest. In Travis Touchdown it had one of the most memorable protagonists of recent years, whose sheer charisma and impulse-driven momentum made following his blood-soaked path all the more exciting. As with Suda's previous game killer7, No More Heroes is a constant barrage of ideas and excesses, characterised by its unforgettable boss-battles which included a stage illusionist, a one-legged female soldier, a Paris Hilton-lookalike psychotic dominatrix and a schoolgirl samurai. Also in common with killer7 are the depths that lie beneath that spectacular surface, proffering subtle commentaries on the contradictions of a gamer's lifestyle (just as Ice-Pick Lodge's games use negative emotions to evoke themes, No More Heroes' side-job minigames toe the threshold of repetitiveness to make their point), modern society's lust for drama, plus Suda's recurring theme of tensions between East and West – this time cultural, rather than political. But more than anything, No More Heroes is my game of the decade because of how much it loves being a videogame. No other title these past eleven (*cough*) years has brought with it the same lunatic joy at being able to do what it does so well, be it the punchily visceral combat system, which uses the Wii remote to brilliant effect, or the freedom to throw surprises at the player with every turn. It's a cliché to say that a game reminds you of why started playing games in the first place, but No More Heroes is my Game of the Decade because in its own crazed and ecstatic way, it loves gaming just as much as its players do.

Happy New Year everyone!

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