Wait … what? Who does that? Who makes a decade-long retrospective in a year ending in anything but a 9? And who publishes a retrospective in any month but December?
Well, I do. And I have my reasons for it.
Chief among these is that the true purpose of any “best of” list is to be wrong in fun and provocative ways. What better way to start things out, then, than by choosing an utterly arbitrary set of dates?
But, really, I do have reasons, which you’ll find below the fold, as well as the categories I’ll be announcing the games in. The list itself will start tomorrow, and continue until October 10th. (And there’s a reason for that!)
On October 10, 2007, Valve released Portal.
On November 1, 2007, Jason Rohrer released Passage.
On March 21, 2008, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn released The Graveyard.
On August 6, 2008, Jonathan Blow released Braid on the Xbox 360.
And, on October 13, 2008, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel released World of Goo on the Wii.
In this roughly 12-month period from October 2007 to October 2008, the medium of the videogame shifted in its foundations. In the 10 years that have followed, the public perception of games has undergone a major turn. The First Amendment protections of the medium have been affirmed by the US Supreme court. It has infiltrated art museums. Across the board, games have gained new audiences.
Part of this explosion of gaming’s audience came with the rise of casual gaming, a zeitgeist spurned on by the Wii, Facebook, tablets, and smartphones. Another part, though, arises from the medium’s pursuit of a new ambition: to become a mass entertainment medium that self-respecting adults could talk about in public, à la cinema, or quality television. Over the course of 2007–2017, once-lonely devotees of Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999) and Shadow of the Colossus (Team ICO, 2005) have gained a whole new roster of “gateway games” to recommend to friends, cherished demonstrations that the medium is worth taking seriously.
Along with Shadow of the Colossus and Planescape, there had certainly been “art games” and “serious games” prior to October 2007. Gallery-minded game artists such as JODI, Julian Oliver, Brody Condon, and Eddo Stern had been doing their respective things since the 1990s. Gonzalo Frasca made Kabul Kaboom in 2001, and September 12: A Toy World in 2003. In 2005, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern pushed boundaries with Façade, and Danny Ledonne made headlines with Super Columbine Massacre RPG. By then, Jonatan Söderström was putting out work under his “Cactus” nom de jeux, and Stephen Lavelle was making games as Increpare.
But it was in this 12-month period that the concept of the “indie game,” as a scene where all sorts of interesting things were taking place, really began to gel. Yes, this claim is simultaneously hotly contentious and utterly meaningless. But I stand by it.[i] Between October 2007 and October 2008, new concepts and rules emerged.
An “indie game” wasn’t something you had to go to a gallery to see. It also wasn’t necessarily a free Flash game you found on Newgrounds or Kongregate. An “indie game” could be released commericially. As Braid and World of Goo demonstrated, it might show up on a console, costing somewhere in the $10–$20 range. It might also show up on one of those newfangled smartphones. And it wasn’t just a smaller-budget version of a big-budget game. It was something … different. Perhaps it had a retro art style. Or an unusual and thought-provoking game mechanic. Or just a sense of humor appropriate to someone above the age of 14. It was eye-catching in some way. It felt like the product of a personal voice (or small set of personal voices), rather than some anonymous corporate product. Basically, it felt like something an adult could recommend to a fellow adult, without a twinge of embarrassment.
Given the detail with which I have laid out this history, let me now be even more specific. This list will be my “Games of the Decade,” as released between October 10, 2007 and October 10, 2017. Precision: I love it.
By picking the precise start date of October 10, I will have to cut some notable 2007 releases out of this list. Rod Humble first unveiled The Marriage at GDC in March of 2007. Jason Nelson put Game, game, game and again game online sometime in the spring of 2007, as near as I can tell. But such excisions are but a small price to pay for creating a list that’s just stupidly, intransigently wrong enough to be contestable, and therefore interesting.
Now, on to my exact selection criteria. I would never be so presumptuous as to call these the “best” games of the decade. (I play a lot of games, but not nearly enough contemporary releases, across a diverse enough array of genres, to make this judgment.) Nor are they really my “favorite.” Not exactly.
Instead, these are the games that have come out over the past decade that I would be most likely to recommend. I’d recommend them to friends, to teachers, to students, to people on the street. I’d recommend them to anyone interested in the places games can potentially go as an art form. I’d recommend them to people who have never played a game before. (And I would look forward to the inevitable response of, “Huh, I never knew there were games like that!“) I am recommending them to you, dear reader, through this very list.
These games aren’t perfect. But they also aren’t boring. Their flaws are worth getting angry over. These are games worth being disappointed in when they fail, rather than just indifferent.
The “recommend them to people who have never played a game before” bit is important. General accessibility looms large in my criteria for this list. With a few exceptions, these aren’t action-heavy games. Most of them are approachable, in terms of the skill level they assume. They are also approachable in the constellation of aesthetic values they address. The ability to tell a story is weighted heavily, as is an ear for dialogue, and visual panache. (I’d love to have a category devoted to sound design, but I don’t play enough music games to be remotely authoritative on that front.) I show a definite bias towards games that are easy to play, and aspire to middlebrow acceptability. You can think of this as a list of “best gateway games of 2007–2017.”
As a result, “gamey” games suffer. There are some fantastic shooter, tactics, and stealth games that have come out over the past decade that I’ve probably outright enjoyed more than anything on this list, but that are conspicuously absent here. Spoiler warning: this list lacks Vanquish (PlatinumGames, 2010), Invisible, Inc. (Klei Entertainment, 2015), Fireaxis’ two XCOM franchise games (2012 & 2016) and Nintendo EAD Tokyo’s two Super Mario Galaxy games (2007 & 2010). Those are all superb games that gave me tremendous pleasure to play. But they aren’t games that would necessarily intrigue newcomers to the medium. And so, I have considered ineligible for this list. Maybe I can make a second list in the future, but this 2007–2017 retrospective values ambitious innovation combined with accessibility over technical perfection in the pursuit of fun.
Alright … am I wrong enough yet?
Oh, okay. I guess I’ll just have to start listing things off, then.
The list will include fifty games, and it will begin tomorrow. For now, I will simply announce the categories that I have used to determine my final pool of games. There will be 10 categories, generally with five games per category—although one category has six games, and another has four.
- September 30 Category: Elegance
- October 1 Category: Ambition
- October 2 Category: Pacing
- October 3 Category: Characters
- October 4 Category: Stakes
- October 5 Category: Sense of Place
- October 6 Category: Intimacy
- October 7 Category: Delight
- October 8 Category: Mood
- October 9 Category: Endings
- October 10: The list in full, for easier perusing
[i]. I am not alone in pointing to the vicinity of this 12-month period when it comes to the codification of concepts like “indie game” and/or “art game.” Jesper Juul’s conference paper “High-tech Low-tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival” names a similar transition point between when IGF winners tended to be “small versions of bigger-budget games” versus when they started to exhibit “a well-defined Independent Style.” Felan Parker traces a similar chronology for the discourse around “art games” in his journal article “An Art World for Artgames.”