An Unordered List Of My Favorite 2010s Games Includes Thoughtful Reflections

Games of the 2010s, aka Decade of the Rising Cyber-Text.

Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly, 2015)

I sure do love the genre of spaceship fixing games, like System Shock, Dead Space and PREY. They always seem to be horror games and I wonder why. It’s like the emotional strain it takes to begrudgingly rise from bed to prepare for your morning’s labor, on a space station or something similar, at whatever remedial job, is intrinsic to this genre. If there were no scary monsters to run, hide or just kill then would the dread I feel when thinking about playing these games, losing another horrific hour of progress down the dark bloodied corridors of this MED-LAB or that ENGINEERING section, would it be just as scary? With the assurance that whatever’s causing that *THUNK* up in the vents is not actually anything like a creeping, acid-dripping death, does the labor involved with putting a whole-ass space ship back into operating function offer enough drudgery to simulate the hesitation I usually feel, and especially felt for Alien: Isolation, when I merely consider playing these space station fix-em-ups?


( Screens and interfaces! Here’s a compiled source of all of A:I’s lovely little minigames.)

I put off finishing (and, really, just getting past the first level) of Alien: Isolation for years. I kept feeling it nag at me whenever I saw it in my Steam library, knowing it would be something I loved if I ever got over the unease it seemed to promise me. I think the teasing, the half-starts, the unresolved assurances to get back to it until I finally did just enhanced my experience, my utter delight in the 30 hour slog I went through to finish it. It reminded me that I used to get this feeling about tackling “hard” media that I really don’t feel anymore. This warning-instinct whenever my gaze fell upon a book spine several inches wide or screenshots of a classic game’s final hours I thought I’d never reach. Alluring but also something very foreboding. Alien: Isolation was the last game to make me feel intimidated in the same way. For that reason alone this is one of my favorite games of the decade, but there are of course other reasons. If you really think about the aesthetics of adaptation, Alien: Isolation might be one of the most brilliant practices in adapting. Creative Assembly managed to transmute the spirit of a slow-paced horror film into interactive audio-visual medium. Alien: Isolation nails the phenomenological experience of Alien thanks to its presentation and mechanics. It’s just too good. I hope we never get a sequel, but I also kind of hope we do.

LISA: The Painful RPG (LOVEBRADGames, 2014)

The way video games get made rarely allows for the possibility of auteurhood to become a real thing in the games industry. For other media fields like film, the auteur is mostly a fiction, created to have something marketable on a poster or press-release, like “A RICH LINKLATER (andalsothecrewofpeoplewhohealwaysworkswith) FILM” . But sometimes games do have authentic auteurs, one-person visionary developers. It seems most often to happen in micro-indie spaces and among catalogs of RPGmaker games. You rarely hear of them, groups or individuals like thecatamites, kitty horrorshow, Puppet Combo, but they do exist and they are small enough teams to have this mythological prestige around them and still provide due credit to all the participating authors who contribute to the development. I think auteurhood among games is rarer and, for that reason, less problematic to celebrate.

(Appreciate the Shenmue samples in this cut.)

And one game I have always celebrated as the absolute expression of one individual’s creativity is LISA: The Painful RPG by Austin Jorgensen, aka LOVEBRAD aka Dingaling, aka the other names padding the game’s credits even though he is the sole creator behind it. It’s extremely bizarre and stylish. The most terribly unfortunate adventure game I have ever played. It was a totally inspirational discovery when I realized, this is all one person’s vision; this is a rare piece of art as honest as anyone should ever hope to make. LISA: The Painful RPG is precious. I thought it was beautiful, and ugly and sad and, as I said, terrible. Back then I wrote a review that concluded with something truthful that is still true now: “I want to fold myself around the diamond that is this game, absorb that thing right into my core of my gut and hold it dearly, protecting it, looking at it every now and then just to remind myself of it, just to make sure this game really happened.”

Pathologic 2 (Ice-pick Lodge, 2019)

For some people, “game” is synonymous with “play”, which is pretty closely related to the idea of “fun”. I’ve come to think of “game” more as structure, but I admit that I might be on some bullshit that I’ll eventually have to come down from. Nonetheless, what games as play-things or systems do when players fail, or die, is often not very interesting. So we have this general notion about failure, that it is frustrating, shameful, something to be minimized, and, in a sort of entropic energy-efficiency sense, useless and maybe ultimately harmful to the longevity of the game as it is to be considered ‘playable’. If players experience enough failure while playing a game the criticism is inevitably let-fly, or at least aimed: it is the game that is failing me, how can it resist my project of play this much — it is simply unplayable! This criticism is depressing, but it’s just symptomatic of how a certain convention of game design has never really faced examination within the main-stream. How do we make player failure not so crushing, remove it from the context of losing another 50 cents at the arcade, or having to return to the beginning of a level with nothing to show for it?

Pathologic 2 is a painful experience for many reasons, but I think it is largely due to the way it forces players to examine their own values about failure and, as it is thematized in-game, death. Failure is treated as an iterative process by which narratives emerge, fragmentary, showing clear signs of painful and final loss. Your decisions in Pathologic 2 are capable of affects with tangible consequences, and every night that passes is the ending of a trial that sees that the player and narrative are irreparably altered. The stakes involved are apparent from the start and Ice-pick Lodge are very upfront that this is a game that you will not emerge from as you entered. Like a good experience with psychedelics, Pathologic 2 is a confrontation that necessitates drastic change in you, at least on a short-term scale. You will kill when, prior, you would never kill; you will show mercy when, deep down, you know they don’t deserve it. And when you die it will be because you made the decision to die, and that is that.

PREY: Mooncrash (Arkane Studios, 2018)

I imagine master-level comprehension of a game is like being capable of tracking the position of every cog and gear in a clock and knowing that, in just this position, it means we exist at 3:33 o’clock. I have never come close to this level of awareness in any game. The reasoning behind that is undoubtedly in part my unwillingness to pursue that mastery (or my lacking the arrogance to think I ever could obtain it), but it might also be that those cogs and gears and the signification of 3:33 o’clock are generally obfuscated in most games. Most games don’t want you to know they are games; they don’t want you to master them, they don’t want to give up their power. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if the player could, like, easily break the simulation? Just the worst. Better get a balance-patch for your single-player game sent out ASAP.


Waypoint’s Rob Zacny recently posited that the allure that sets the simulation of the immersive-sim moving is, pivotally, a player’s desire to actualize a power fantasy. PREY: Mooncrash is certainly that, or at least it is for me. Stripped of all the narrative luggage of the main game, Arkane’s im-sim rogue-like brings the clockwork mechanisms to the foreground, creating an exciting and varied playground for power-hungry me to exert my mastery over the simulation. That’s the ideal, anyway. I’m not that good, and yet my failure in Mooncrash is also a source of excitement and significance as it teaches me how the mechanism moves, without abstraction by metaphor, but literally, through degrees of flame and psychic damage, randomization values and their ranges, probabilities of success. Not only is Mooncrash taking advantage of the fun im-sim qualities that existed in the main game of PREY, it is successfully convincing and forcing me to engage the simulation with tools I have always been provided but never thought, or knew how to use.

Portal 2 (Valve Corporation, 2011)

I wonder if there is a parallel narrative to draw that explains Valve’s self-perception as a research-and-development lab and the function disastrous science experiments serve in games like Half-Life and Portal. Might there be a bit of engineer’s irony at play that’s been flying over most our heads? Are you lamp-shading or just boasting by including defective portal turrets as a puzzle mechanic, alluding to your quarterly successes vs your failures? I wonder if the bosses had a chuckle when they saw that one. I’m no STEM-major so I can’t tell with these things, but at whose expense are these jokes about test-subjects, memetic viruses and AIs killing everyone aimed at exactly? What’s the story here, Valve? You say I can find out if I put on these nifty new goggles? Factory fresh, cutting-edge stuff — well gee, it looks like 2020 in here!

(Anything to promote this amazing video)

Iteration is a major theme behind Portal 2, as I see it. Similarly to the greatest 80s action-film sequels, Portal 2 did everything that Portal did but on a cranked scale and lost nothing in the embiggening. Lesser game designers would struggle to maintain the quality of experience that was that original game, so concise and lovely, but Valve are measured masters of creating amazing theme park campaigns when they give a care. It’s like every time they drop a game they’re reinventing Pepper’s Ghost and it looks more believable every time, but instead of being a visual trick they do something like a ludo trick that touches all the gamer-senses in a fuller way than you’re used to. Portal 2 is a simple game; you shoot portals, fly and (now) slide, so I won’t wax about the actual mechanics here. Instead I want to urge you, upon revisiting Portal 2 or playing it for the first time, to notice its deliberateness. Think about what the stage lights are showing you, how space is conveyed and made to feel big or abandoned and small. Valve did it all with Portal 2. If they never made another game again it would be a fitting farewell to their legacy.

Tokyo Jungle (Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan, 2012)

Among so many attempts by indie developers to capture some semblance of the concision and urgency of 80s/90s arcade experiences this decade, I think Tokyo Jungle is to be both forgotten and crowned as the best example. It’s got a type of SEGA AM3 energy, folks. And that’s a rare, beloved type of energy.


Playing as a raptor or a pomeranian, the level of abstraction at work in Tokyo Jungle’s mechanics and goals allows anyone to become seriously invested in the business of survival, evolution and high-scores. The risks are extremely clear, but the temptation is exceedingly greater when you sneak up to a sewer hippo whose strayed too far from her pack (yes, her hippo pack) and lunge, sinking your stubby house-cat teeth into its hide. What fun it is to try and fail, to be routed on your way through post-apocalyptic Shibuya by unexpected toxic air or a chicken party. But there’s a brutal logic foregrounded by the silly abstraction. When you’ve grown too old and you can’t find your pristine mate, make the decision, settle or persist. Drink poison water when that’s all there is to drink. Kill rabbits, all of them, though your Elephant body needs much more. Make the decision, Sony, to port and republish Tokyo Jungle, or let one of the best PS3 exclusives die in obscurity. But, please, don’t let it come to that, just port it already…

The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden, 2015)

There are not a lot of games that deliberately draw a player’s attention to the materiality of digital games. There’s the sanctity of that ostensible “immersion” factor that players always talk about and triple-A sees nothing but embarrassment when the seams begin to split and their delicately crafted glue-and-big-budget simulations fall apart. But I have always loved the simulation as a simulation, the limits of the skybox, the unfinished backs of buildings we are never meant to see. It’s why I love Garry’s Mod, that sandbox tool-set which made a game out of imaginatively engaging with the simulation. Video games were always so obviously ‘not-real’ to me, maybe because I grew up *on* the Source Engine and I never found myself *inside* City-17 or rp_hometown 1999. ‘Immersion’ is an unobtainable ideal, bullshit and fake.


(What can be said about this side of the city? Hmm?!)

The Beginner’s Guide seemed bold and exciting to me because it was willing to engage players with a story, a meta-narrative, about making and playing unfinished games with sincerity and drama. It’s a whole game about endowing narrative upon the split seams almost every game tries to obliterate from your awareness. The Beginner’s Guide argues that the materiality of a game is intrinsically without narrative — without significance — until we endow it with a reality, a narrative and significance. Play The Beginner’s Guide with the narration turned-off and let your attention remain upon the same levels, limits, procedures, and though the name Coda will never enter your mind other things will. You’re creating a different narrative, an alternate reality out of your own significance. And you might as well, because what Davy Wreden is telling you is just as artificial as the levels themselves. It’s all fake!! But that shouldn’t depress you. Artificiality is such a rich material to work with. Let us go forth and manufacture significance and altered realities with this new and exciting medium of video games.

Hitman (IO Interactive, 2016)

Games of the decade, you’d think, would be emblematic of what could only be made during that specific decade. My list is full of games that are arguably conventional in enough ways that they could move in out of this or that decade, but who cares. But when I think about the 2010s and its intrinsic Digital/Digital/Digital ‘tude, the games as service model feels indelibly of the era. The possibility for games to remain in development, experience constant change, face entire reboots (looking at you FFXIV) is something that has rarely benefited games and more often hurt them. The exceptions are interesting to me and are reason enough to believe that games, too, can benefit from Gertrude Stein’s notion of constant composition.


Hitman is an especially interesting example of a successful use of the games-as-service model, where a pre-2010s franchise suffering a loss of identity rediscovered itself and blossomed as it hadn’t in years. Its not only that Hitman reemerged so startlingly confident with its episodic model and time-restricted assassination targets, but also that its new vision was really just so much fun. This new era of Hitman is founded upon the clock-work simulation of its worlds and the tools players use to embody and affect that world. There are so many ways to play in this sandbox that it seems appropriate to reconsider what playing in this context even is. While murder is primarily the way you affect the simulation, the game is, at least to me, great fun without throwing Christmas axes into the face of evil billionaires. Hitman is an assassination game, but most people, IO Interactive included, think of it as a puzzle game. Because of the way the simulation clearly conveys its limits, I have often tried to explain to people that playing Hitman feels something close to playing a boardgame. It is so interesting, and so 2010 to me how Hitman is clearly a digital platform, an obvious simulation that is so fun to play because its comprised of clearly conveyed systems. That maybe a bit beep-boop, input/output, whose mother do I have to kill, robot talk. But in 2020, it’s time to admit we’re all pretty cybernetic and respond to the call of the simulation.

Bloodborne & The Old Hunters DLC (From Software, 2015)

Shamefully, the process of commodification has robbed most art drawing on the aesthetics of cosmic horror of its potential as a dangerous and decentering philosophy. I have written at length about this, how the rise of the ‘Lovecraftian’ genre signifier often limits art to tentacles, mad narrators, cults and nothing, no way, not an inch beyond. There is no dialectic at work with popular Lovecraftian, cosmic horror, which any aesthetic movement requires to retain a vital movement to sustain itself against stagnation. There are lesser known creatives doing the good work of progressing this strain of philosophical horror, but it’s come to a point that anything with a decent marketing budget being touted as Lovecraftian is starting to give me straight-to-home-video industry vibes. Mass-market (eh) cosmic horror is almost never perplexing; because, in order to be marketable you cannot be perplexing and still maintain a comforting familiarity.

(The feeling is alive in this video, enjoy)

But Bloodborne was ultimately inscrutable. It kept secrets . I don’t think there was ever any indication pre-release that From Sofware’s supreme-Gothic universe was anything but a Victorian-era, plague and werewolf action RPG. A familiar enough genre, but just the set up for a grand decentering. It began as I inched through the game’s grotesque, and beautiful, locations, where I caught the first suggestion of the presence of space aliens. Then, I was jilted even more askew when I received an invitation to a haunted castle, once home to a rogue faction of vampires. And I was certainly sideways by the time I obtained enough ‘insight’ and saw the world changed in a massive way, or, really, saw it just as it truly always was for the first time. From Software manages to narrativize many of the classic Lovecraftian tropes in mechanical, ludo-centric (interactive and experiential) ways that other Lovecraftian games have struggled and failed at for decades. What’s more is how much pathos all the cosmic horror is shot through with, as is really on display in The Old Hunters DLC, with its themes of trauma and pre-determinancy, which games critic Lia Dacina has clearly articulated. From Software harnesses the aesthetics of cosmic horror and, brilliantly, recontextualizes and enhances the project with their unique narrative voice, which is what I am always begging for creators to do with this furtive material.

Outer Wilds (Mobius Games, 2019)

I don’t want every game to be Outer Wilds, like how every game after Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare suddenly became an RPG. But I hope every game of the coming decade is less afraid to acknowledge the disconnect between player and game, to be as brave as Outer Wilds at least in this matter. At the end of a decade of great games came this one to affirm my suspicion that games are just interface — and YOU PLAYER are just a vastly more complex interface as well! This is a trans-humanist notion, so bare with me, but the limits of our abilities to remember and to even understand are, kind of, the procedurality of our own phenomenological experience. What I mean is, games can overwhelm us with the white-noise of excessive information yet never impede our human ability to be bewildered by them and imagine, as Outer Wilds is so wonderfully capable of engaging. This clash of interfaces and the attempt to navigate the distance between them is going to result in infinitely more interesting experiences than any triple-A movie-game could ever offer. I believe this, largely because Outer Wilds proves it.

What I am advocating for here is making games as a practice in sustaining tension between a complex system and the limits of the human mind, which can easily manifest as experiences less pleasant than Outer Wilds. But we have Outer Wilds, which is filled with the delight of autonomous discovery and revelation, and it must be appreciated first-hand. The process of learning how to understand is intrinsic to this game, which is always a nourishing thing I think. But something important to notice about Outer Wilds is that the mystery, why the sun is exploding and how to stop it, and what stopping it even means, is not something a single person can achieve without tools, logical and literal maps, theoretical concepts and procedures to test them. What is apparent in playing Outer Wilds is that the universe is justifiably the object of endless human curiosity, but understanding it is not within the naked grasp of our reach. We are not capable of knowing it as we are, we need tools, augmentations to transcend our limits, and maybe we can imagine something to help us to do just that. You have to wonder about getting off this rock before you ever actually do it, and art is so furtive for sparking wonderment.

Honorable Mentions:

Jazzpunk (Necrophone Games, 2014), Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Kojima Productions, 2015), SOMA (Frictional Games, 2017), Friday the 13th: The Video Game (Illfonic, 2017), INSIDE (Playdead, 2015), Dark Souls 2/Scholar of the First Sin Edition (From Software, 2016), XCOM: Enemy Within (Firaxis Games, 2012), Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook Studios, 2016), Betrayer (Blackpowder Games, 2014), Hollowknight (Team Cherry, 2017), What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017), Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (thechineseroom, 2013), Crawl (Powerhoof, 2014).