Gaming is now humanity’s favourite form of entertainment, and the medium’s legacy was cemented this past decade. While the early 2000s saw video games honing their ability to tell stories and build worlds in 3-D, this past decade built off those nuts and bolts of game making and propelled the medium toward bigger ambitions such as open-world design, virtual and augmented reality and an influx of new genres such as battle-royale multiplayer.
Video games have experienced a rapidly changing landscape in technology, business models (i.e. microtransactions and the sale of seasonal battle passes), and its market, which now includes more female gamers and an older average audience. We’ve seen an increase in diversity in games themselves, too, from the varied races and backgrounds for characters in Overwatch to blockbusters like Horizon: Zero Dawn, which features a headstrong female lead.
This past decade achieved several milestones with its wide array of games. Some, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, are titles that we believe will have a lasting impact on the gaming world for years to come. While these were taken into consideration for this article, we haven’t seen their influence fully resonate just yet, as open-world games take years to polish before they’re shipped and the next generation is still on its way.
So, which games have made the biggest mark on the industry from 2010 through 2019? After much deliberation, here is a list of titles we believe aren’t just quality games but ones that have shaped the medium and continue to do so in extraordinary ways.
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Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Video games are often known for being power fantasies. Even the game that popularized survivor horror, Resident Evil, gave you a rocket launcher and an exploding mansion as its coda. Indie studio Frictional Games dared to make you powerless, with just a lantern in hand to light the way.
It gave you no methods of attack. Hiding in the dark would make you lose your sanity. And don’t even think about glancing at the creatures that stalk you. Amnesia was an unrelenting assault of nightmares. You stand in a flooded basement and see ripples in the water, realizing you’re stuck in there with an invisible horror. All this was a breath of fresh air for a genre whose default dynamic was to slash/shoot/explode your way through terror.
Early this century, publishers were wary of funding survival horror games, and the best franchises were either abandoning the genre (like Resident Evil) or were left abandoned on the roadside (like Silent Hill). Amnesia inspired the phenomenon of horror with a first-person camera perspective, including Alien: Isolation, Outlast and the ill-fated P.T., the “playable teaser” for the infamously canceled Silent Hills directed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro.
Amnesia also helped launch the careers of the Internet’s most influential personalities today, most notably PewDiePie. With 102 million subscribers, Felix Kjellberg initially gained viral attention by freaking out over the game, especially the water scene described above. These videos also boosted interest in the game, and publishers noticed. And gamers realized that playing and reacting to horror games was a great way to get views on YouTube. A new celebrity class was born, and the Internet hasn’t been the same since.
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What genre is Minecraft? If you call it a survival game, you neglect the sizable portion of its player base that spends its time futzing about in the creative mode, or building elaborate trick doors with redstone. The compromise pick would be to call it a sandbox, but that just takes us back to square one. A sandbox is a blank canvas.
Minecraft represents, in the history of gaming, the ultimate blank canvas. It is The Everything Game by merit of the perfect simplicity of its base formula: building with blocks.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that The Everything Game just appeared, one day, fully formed. One of Minecraft’s most enduring legacies is the early access model. In the immediate wake of Minecraft’s success, gamers enjoyed an early access boomlet in which players got unprecedented say over future development. It’s not hard to draw the line from indie games in early access to the AAA rebranding of the term “games as a service,” discussed a little later in this article with a look at Destiny, this trend’s most apparent beneficiary.
Few games better encapsulate the 2010s than the ever-popular Minecraft. Analogues and echoes of the decade’s most pressing questions can be found somewhere in its story. The game provided an ideal medium for content creators, who would toil and shape and star in productions that elevated them to stardom and turned YouTube into a juggernaut. Minecraft Let’s Play picked up the torch after Halo 3 machinima died down, arguably spawning streaming culture. Before Fortnite finally pushed its top creators into the pantheon of celebrity, Minecraft laid the foundation.
We see too the darker trends around social media and celebrity. Minecraft’s most famous creator, Markus Persson, better known as Notch, became the prototypical too-rich, too-disconnected-and-too-online guy, emblematic of a decade dominated by Kanye West and Elon Musk.
Other games will come for Minecraft’s crown. Fortnite has made its bid – but absent a base mode with Minecraft’s flexibility, it has leaned wholly into entertainment and brand collaborations. Minecraft is singular. In the context of the 2010s, it was a forerunner, the canvas on which, in retrospect, some of the biggest challenges and changes of the decade see their clearest expression.
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Eventually, every video game is compared with Dark Souls. Comparing anything to Dark Souls was a pervasive meme, but in every meme lies some truth. Yes, Dark Souls provided the template for the “Souls-like” genre, games that harshly punish you and set you back for failure. But ideas about player progress, online interactions and environmental storytelling eventually made its way to the rest of the industry.
With no direct contact with one another, players could leave messages, warnings and other thoughts to lift others going through the same harrowing experience, planting the seed for Hideo Kojima’s grand vision for player interaction in this year’s Death Stranding. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the best Star Wars game in the last decade, wasn’t shy about its Souls inspiration. And with its exhausting difficulty, From Software challenged and asked us to redefine the very concepts of “fun” and “reward.” It forced us to earn every inch of progress by learning from our mistakes.
The game’s story seemed impenetrable at first, but years of analysis has revealed a game layered in mythology and meaning. Every item and enemy is placed with intent. Every room and staircase has purpose. And From Software left out just enough details to spur our imagination, inspiring hundreds of Internet bards to tell tales of their own adventures and the meaning they derived from the game. For some, it was an allegory about the will to survive during depression. For others, it was a nihilistic nightmare railing against the aging belief systems of humanity.
But ask anyone who beat it, and they likely won’t talk about the graphics or the sound or the controls. Dark Souls is the decade’s greatest reminder that video games are more than just stories being told: They are personal, lived experiences.
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The fifth Elder Scrolls game from Bethesda Studios became the benchmark for role-playing adventures games in the past decade. While it was really just an evolution of the previous four games, fantasy games went mainstream in a way they never had before Skyrim. Skyrim is, for many, the American role playing game’s Final Fantasy 7. And it was the mother of a thousand memes.
Todd Howard, creative director of Skyrim, said the team hoped Skyrim would enter the pantheon of timeless fantasy worlds.
“The game reflects back on the player as much as possible: ‘Who would you be, what would you do in that world?'” Howard told The Washington Post. “That’s the thing games do better than other entertainment.”
And the game was everywhere, with Howard appearing at news conferences for tech companies to announce a new version of Skyrim.
But Skyrim caused an explosion in the community modding scene. As Bethesda finally moved on to other games, Skyrim’s players kept the game alive by turning dragons into Thomas the Tank Engine or Macho Man Randy Savage. No other offline game was so online.
If Skyrim seems like the game that just won’t die, it’s because its players refuse to let it.
“It’s incredible to see so many [people] still playing, even after eight years,” Howard said. “We still marvel at what people are able to do with the game. Maybe that’s why it’s endured for so long.”
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Candy Crush Saga
Candy Crush Saga’s humble beginning as a Facebook game makes sense, considering no other title on this list has been as disruptive to the business of selling video games. Candy Crush Saga popularized the “freemium” model within the mobile gaming market: Give the core gameplay away free, but charge for peripheral virtual items that either enhance, quicken or beautify the player’s experience. It married online shopping and gaming to the point where the two were indistinguishable. Mobile gaming eventually created “pay to win” games, referring to video games insidiously designed to slow your progression, encouraging you to pay to win. It is one of the industry’s most despised – and most profitable – practices.
Although a single-digit percentage of players were making these purchases, half a billion people had the game just one year after it released. By 2017, it was downloaded 2.7 billion times – enough for once per human. Thanks to this small percentage of billions, developer King raked in millions per month.
Activision Blizzard’s purchase of Candy Crush Saga’s Swedish developer in 2015, for $5.9 billion, immediately made it the biggest game publisher in the world. And soon the wildly successful freemium model started to creep into the PC and console space, shaping some of the other games on this list.
It helps that the game is colorful, fun and constantly engaging. Dark Souls and Candy Crush represent the two extreme ends of the gamer populace: casual and hardcore gamers. And regardless of whether they’re aware of it, Candy Crush Saga turned millions of unsuspecting people into gamers.
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The Walking Dead: Season One
Reviving adventure games is no small feat, but Telltale’s The Walking Dead was one of the major players that helped reinvigorate the genre. The game told the story of young Clementine and her friendship with Lee, a man whose story began in handcuffs until a zombie apocalypse broke out. The two venture out on a heart-wrenching journey together as they attempt to survive a crippling world’s harsh realities.
Before its release, “adventure games are dead” was a common sentiment in the games industry. The genre had its golden era in the 1980s and early ’90s, but it then quickly dwindled in popularity. Sales of subsequent adventure games often fell flat, including LucasArts’s Grim Fandango. Telltale’s The Walking Dead changed everything: It spurred similar games such as Life is Strange, Firewatch and Oxenfree – some of which were made by former Telltale developers themselves.
Dontnod Entertainment, the creators of Life is Strange, believes that without The Walking Dead its own choice-driven adventure game may have never existed.
“When we worked on the first Life is Strange, games like The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain were influences for us,” co-director Raoul Barbet said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “It especially showed us that there was a will from the player to have some games based on choice and storytelling. So I definitely think that without those games, we might not have ended up creating Life is Strange.”
The Walking Dead was a big hit financially, too, popularizing the release of updates in episodic form for far less money than the typical price tag of $60 for a full game. Within its first 20 days of release, the first episode (five were released in total) sold 1 million copies. In early 2013, Telltale had earned about $40 million in revenue solely from the debut season.
The Walking Dead showed the games industry that there was a hunger for deeper, stronger, and choice-driven storytelling, and it became one of Telltale’s crown jewels – one it tried to replicate time and time again, until the studio closed down in late 2018. The studio isn’t completely gone, however: A new iteration of Telltale is now working with independent studio AdHoc (made up of ex-Telltale designers) to produce the once-canceled The Wolf Among Us 2.
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Recent years have introduced the concept of video games as a service or “live service games.” Bungie’s Destiny crystallized that model, despite its early missteps.
When released, Destiny was not well-reviewed. Activities were boring, the loot was inadequate, the story was nonsense. Destiny’s disastrous launch was an omen that these persistent “games as a service” titles will be really hard not only to make but to maintain. Destiny’s early missteps were repeated not only by its competitors but by Bungie itself for Destiny 2.
But Bungie would right the ship, which also demonstrated the beauty of the “games as a service” model. The developers responded to community feedback and ultimately chiseled the game into something closer to its original vision of a “shared world shooter.” Seasons changed its evolving and expanding story, and Bungie introduced challenges to give anyone a reason to log in every day.
“I vividly remember first hearing about Destiny as a Bungie employee,” said Luke Smith, Destiny’s lead game designer. “[Co-founder] Jason Jones said the next game was going to be a hobby, like golf. The hobby construction of a game immediately resonated with me. Community and a return to aspects like what we saw in World of Warcraft in a shooter? That was all I needed to hear to get in.”
Destiny 2 is now free, and it remains one of the healthiest, vibrant communities, winning The Game Award in 2019 for best community support. The story of gaming’s decade is incomplete without Destiny turning its high-profile failure into an ever-moving goal post for anyone else who would dare to mimic Bungie’s aspirations.
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The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
The world of The Witcher 3 is so large it can be almost daunting, but this magnitude set a new standard for open-world design. Its sprawling narrative seamlessly fits inside the world, both through emergent storytelling and scripted moments, as you visit travel from one village to the next. During development, creator CD Projekt Red looked to Skyrim, which released just a few years beforehand, as inspiration. But they didn’t want to just copy what Skyrim got right.
“We drew inspiration from a whole range of titles, and Skyrim was definitely among them; it was the benchmark for open-world games back then,” Witcher 3 writer Jakub Szamalek told The Post. “At the same time, while there’s a lot to learn from the folks from Bethesda, we knew we didn’t want to simply copy their game. Most importantly, we put a much greater emphasis on the narrative aspect of the game.”
The Witcher 3 tells the story of Geralt, a powerful monster-killing sorcerer who makes his way through a medieval-inspired land to find a young woman named Ciri. Depending on your choices – and some can be heart wrenching – the world adapts around you. It also features side quests that are as meaningful as the main quest, bringing depth to every corner of the game’s immense world. Most of all, The Witcher 3 set the high bar for storytelling in subsequent open-world games such as last year’s Red Dead Redemption 2, dispelling the notion that open worlds and quality storytelling couldn’t coexist.
“I guess before The Witcher 3, it was commonly assumed that ambitious narratives and open world games don’t mix well: you can have one, but not the other,” Szamalek said. “I think we demonstrated that while it is difficult, as well as time- and resource-consuming, it’s within the realm of possibility. Over the past few years we’ve seen more games that combine sprawling open worlds with well-crafted stories, and if in some small part it is due to the success of The Witcher 3, well, I couldn’t be more pleased, both as a game developer and a gamer.”
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When discussing the influence of Pokémon Go, it’s best to address the question of augmented reality (AR) upfront, so here goes: Pokémon Go is the clearest evidence of AR’s irrelevance.
When the game came out, the hype was tremendous. With its massive success (over 540 million downloads to date), Pokémon Go was the game that launched a thousand decks, prompting questions from every tech, media and software company as to how AR could factor into its work. And then the hype died down. It is funny, in retrospect, that AR’s killer app is such a capitulation. The game allows you to turn off its AR capabilities, and frankly, is all the better for it. Nobody wants to be the overeager jerk on the subway platform, sweatily pivoting back and forth trying to find the Pidove hiding among the commuters.
Worse yet, Pokémon Go is an obvious and not particularly artful exploitation of a beloved childhood property. We’ll see more and more of this over time (Exhibit A: Niantic’s Harry Potter game). And so its true influence isn’t really anything in the game – neither technology nor license. It’s in what the game demands of you: Pokémon Go is a game that’s meant to be played in between doing other things. You’re at a Starbucks, so might as well check into the Poke Stop. Think you’ve walked enough to hatch your eggs? Better check back in. It’s gaming in the micro-moments of your day.
But now, the twist: So many people, and people you would not expect, still keep up with Pokémon Go. Plenty of folks have found routine and comfort in the game. There’s something concerning, but also weirdly resilient, about finding nourishment in gruel so thin.
Pokémon Go is the “I’m always listening to podcasts or music because I don’t want to be alone with my own thoughts” of games. It’s unlikely that we’ll see many one-to-one Pokémon Go clones in the future. Instead, we’ll be besieged by games that try to cram themselves into the quiet moments and spaces of everyday life.
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No, Fortnite is not on here because it popularized the battle royale genre. Fortnite’s best-known mode is itself a result of the popularization of the genre, thanks to PlayerUnknown’s Battleground. But once Epic Games successfully aped the formula, Fortnite found new ways to keep players engaged. The game was free, but the battle pass system kept players subscribing every few months to log on and garner new rewards. Thanks to several controversies that coincided with the rollout of the game’s battle pass, the loot box practice of offering surprise rewards for real money became a pariah of the industry.
Fortnite offered 100 tiers of rewards for only $10 every few months in a “season,” and players got to see everything they would win along the way. The transparency and low commitment cost kept players coming back and – combined with direct payments for skins and other cosmetics offered outside of the battle pass – suddenly the industry found a winning formula. Soon, everyone from Call of Duty to Halo to Overwatch had a similar battle pass system.
Then there was the spectacle of the game. Every season would end with a global event witnessed by millions over streaming platforms such as Twitch, elevating personalities Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Turner “Tfue” Tenney, Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler and many others alongside the game. The streamers and Fortnite smashed through screens and into the mainstream – and ultimately helped people like Blevins and Wheeler ink exclusive streaming contracts worth millions of dollars.
Over the past three years, Fortnite was everywhere. At one point, it boasted more than 200 million players a month, and became the biggest pop phenomenon of 2018. World Cup goals were celebrated with Fortnite dances. Former first lady Michelle Obama even did a dance. Major sports leagues worried about players not sleeping or training because of the game. It held an in-game concert, and then, this December, an in-game screening of a scene for the new Star Wars movie – the latest pop-culture crossover event for a game that’s also featured Netflix series “Stranger Things” and Marvel’s Avengers movies.
Epic Games declined to discuss Fortnite’s legacy, citing – as its team often does – that it prefers to let the game speak for itself. At the end of the decade, Fortnite is still speaking volumes.
© The Washington Post 2019