The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)
Nintendo’s mainline franchises don’t change very much. Mario and Link are always wearing the same clothes and rocking the same basic moves — jump, slash, fireball, hookshot — on a mission to save some kind of princess from some kind of Bowser/Ganondorf. But the deceptively simple gameplay at the core of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda belies the games’ strength — they are easy to play but difficult to master. What sets The Wind Waker apart, 10 years after its release, is its eccentric, eerily beautiful cel-shading aesthetic. It’s Nintendo’s last great visual experiment, a remnant from a bygone age before the iconic game company shifted its focus toward redefining The Controller. Set in a gorgeous world halfway between Hayao Miyazaki and Calvin & Hobbes, Wind Waker also looks ahead of its time now: At a moment when videogames were shifting toward cinematic realism, Wind Waker found a raw beauty in cartoonish primitivism.
Half-Life 2 (2004)
Valve’s futuristic first-person shooter deserves a place in the videogame pantheon just for the introduction of the Gravity Gun. That single innovation cemented a change that had been brewing for a long time. The ”environment” wasn’t just something you walked through while killing people; post-Gravity Gun, it was an organic part of the experience, and it could be the deadliest weapon of all. But Half-Life 2 also set a new benchmark for in-game storytelling, eschewing cinematics in an immersive storyline. (It’s remarkable how few games took the basic lessons of HL2 to heart…and it’s depressing when an otherwise-stellar modern game like Assassin’s Creed 3 ends with what amounts to a neverending poorly animated cartoon.) Best of all, because Valve encouraged players to create their own modifications, Half-Life 2 became a veritable laboratory for user experimentation.
World of Warcraft (2004)
World of Warcraft was never just a game. It was a way of life, the first truly successful social network, a whole epoch unto itself. The Warcraft universe was always a kitchen-sink fantasy universe, which made it inevitable that the franchise would create the world’s most popular massively multiplayer role-playing game. You could choose your own creature — a dwarf, an elf, a bull-creature, a troll, and even a human (though, why choose a human?). The game is impossibly huge, but everyone follows the same basic path, starting with nothing and rising to greatness by gaining skills, possessions, and friends. The great secret of WoW is that it’s the American Dream in fantasy clothes, Horatio Alger dressed up as J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s a game built off the Puritan work ethic, enforcing a blue-collar sensibility by forcing you to grind along; it rewards companionship; and it also made the phrase ”videogame addiction” sound a little less funny.
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
This was the Decadent Era for videogames. Developers raced to pile on the knick-knacks (minigames, celebrity voices, downloadable content, relentless in-game achievements), and then there was Shadow of the Colossus. It took the twin peaks of decadence — the inventory-overflowing RPG Fantasy genre and the open-world post-Grand Theft Auto environment — and reduced them to near-abstraction. You play as a man in a strange, ruined, almost empty landscape. You’re trying to bring a dead girl back to life. You’ve got a sword, a bow, infinite arrows, and a horse. You have to fight 16 monsters, each with their own particular attack style and weakness. After a while, the monsters don’t seem so monstrous…and why are you killing them, anyway? Like many of the great games of the decade, Colossus feels purposefully deconstructive. A more straightforward title would be Boss Fight: The Videogame. But it’s also rapturously beautiful. Designer Fumito Ueda also made the great Ico (and is apparently still working on the perpetually delayed The Last Guardian), but Colossus is his masterpiece, at once romantic and nihilistic. It’s the videogame-as-poetry, establishing a stripped-down style that would influence the arty explorations of the indie movement, like Braid or Journey.
Wii Sports (2006)
Nintendo looked out of touch and old-fashioned in an industry defined by the hip Playstation 2 and the powerhouse Xbox. But that was before they changed the rules of the game. The Wii practically invented a whole new demographic: The Casual Gamer, somebody who wanted something a bit less esoteric than gruff space marines stealing cars from androgynous elf archers. And Wii Sports was the killer app for Nintendo’s motion-control gambit. The game took five simple sports — tennis, baseball, bowling, golf, and boxing — and transformed them into the most addictive arm-waving exercises ever. This was the precise moment when games went mainstream. By ”mainstream,” we mean that Grandma could play, too. How mainstream? In 2009, Wii Sports was declared the bestselling videogame of all time.
There was always something fundamentally immoral about the shooting game. Argue all you want to about how the process of firing a gun at a digital person is just a gameplay mechanic. It’s still a genre built on killing hundreds of people — and the people you’re killing have become steadily more realistic (both graphically and emotionally) as games have evolved. BioShock takes that immortality to its logical extreme. Set in an undersea metropolis that feels like a retro-future utopia designed by Ayn Rand, the game initially just feels like the most gorgeously art-directed shooter ever. Certainly, the look of BioShock was incredibly influential — as was the game’s mixture of superpowered attacks. But then you get to the twist — ”Would you kindly?” — and the game reveals itself as a sharp, insidious self-critique. Featuring one of the great ambiguous figures in game history — the mysterious Andrew Ryan — BioShock doesn’t just ask if you’re a good person. It questions the whole nature of ”goodness” in a genre that requires you to kill everyone in sight.
A psychotic computer, a teleportation gun, and the eternal promise of cake. That’s all there is, really, to Portal, a darkly funny mini-masterpiece. Originally released alongside Half-Life 2 on ”The Orange Box” compilation — this was a very good decade for Valve — Portal is a ”shooter” with just one gun — the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. Using the device requires you to constantly remap your own brain, as the game literally deconstructs the very idea of videogame space. But the game isn’t just a cerebral puzzle. It’s also a ton of fun, thanks to GLaDOS, the curiously endearing homicidal A.I. voiced by Ellen McLain, the flat-out most original videogame character ever. She makes Portal into the best geometry lesson you’ve ever had.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy is the great modern space opera. Not because the games are so huge (although they are massive, expansive, filled with possibility and rich characterization), but because BioWare allowed you to create your own character, and then force that character to make a few thousand decisions during the adventure. The idea of a ”good-evil” spectrum became popular in the past decade, but Mass Effect avoided those easy moral questions with the ”Paragon-Renegade” system. More to the point, Mass Effect managed to gamify the whole idea of storytelling. Every conversation was a new opportunity to define your character, to turn them into a lover or a fighter, a weary old warrior or a sociopath. The franchise hit a high point in its second entry, which featured a relatively simple Ur-plot — it’s Dirty Dozen in Space — that foregrounded the best ensemble cast of the decade. Cool kids know that it’s best to play as a female, so you can enjoy the career-best work of videogame voice-over queen Jennifer Hale.
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Rockstar Games built its brand off the Grand Theft Auto series, which took a hyperrealistic open-world setting and layered in mature content — bad language and hookers and criminal protagonists, oh my! — but the developer’s masterpiece is the rare videogame that goes beyond ”mature content” and feels genuinely mature. Protagonist John Marston is a murderer, but he’s also a father desperate to create a better life for his family. Redemption sets his journey against the most vibrant open-world ever made for a videogame — a frontier-verse set in the wild frontier, the even wilder Mexican border, and a sterile civilized town on the edge of modernity. The game manages the nifty trick of feeling like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone all at once. It also features one of the great videogame endings, a Greek tragedy of a finale that might just be the most cynical statement ever made by a popular videogame company. Put simply, violence begets violence.
Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Rocksteady Studios broke the licensed-videogame curse with 2009’s Arkham Asylum, an above-average stealth-action bruiser. But that was just a warm-up for this expansive sequel, a garish and glorious pop epic that combined all the great advancements of the seventh console generation era, and then threw in Batman as a cherry on top. You play as the Caped Crusader on the worst night of his life, dying from poison and trapped in an apocalyptic prison city. It’s a simple idea — Escape from New York with a batarang — but the gameplay is addictive. More to the point, in a period that saw the Superhero become the defining hero of American pop culture, Arkham City folds decades of Bat lore (the space-age sci-fi, the ’90s cartoon, Frank Miller, Christopher Nolan) into one engaging and nightmarish descent. Forget The Dark Knight, this is the definitive superhero adventure of the decade.
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