With this, our top 100 games of the decade list comes to an end. Read on to see what the Polygon team chose for our 10 best.
10. Fortnite Battle Royale
The easy way to talk about Fortnite Battle Royale is to simply gesture toward its elevated place in the culture. Fortnite clothes are in Target. Fortnite costumes are a staple of Halloween. Sports stars celebrate victories with Fortnite dance moves. Fortnite has turned livestreamers into household names.
But that alone undercuts a fundamental truth about Fortnite: It’s a really great game. Of course, its legacy can’t be separated from the outstanding battle royale games that came before it, which inspired Epic to modify a game that had previously been a troubled team-based survival project. But Epic built something fresh and original, with a likable visual style and the addition of rapid building mechanics.
Rather than every match feeling like a tense multiplayer deathmatch with dozens of tiny fights, Fortnite fights are creativity battles where mechanics are at least as important as aim. And if none of that does it for you then … yeah, Lady Gaga tweeted about it too.
9. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
One of the decade’s defining trends has been the rise of the open-world narrative game, featuring a conflicted, often antiheroic central character. Few games can claim to have ticked quite so many boxes as The Witcher 3, a quasi-medieval fantasy of magic and derring-do.
The Witcher 3 stars Geralt, a gruffly, likable warrior with a strong moral center. He ranges through a world of forests and glens, maidens and monsters, tinkering with tricky political machinations and the egos of queens and mages. He also slays bad guys and monsters, while rescuing the needy.
Although based on a series of books, previous Witcher games were never that convincing from a narrative perspective, stringing together missions based on the usual archetypes and cliches. But this third game feels like a real world populated by humans, in all our devious, selfish glory. The Witcher 3 is pretty and fun, but most of all, it’s well-written.
8. Dark Souls
The words “Dark Souls” have become game description shorthand, just like Metroid and Rogue, for conveying how a certain style of game plays. They speak of nightmarish combat games that are difficult to master.
Dark Souls’ grim fantasy world features groundbreaking multiplayer game mechanics, intricate and interconnected level design, environmental storytelling, and a grueling difficulty level. Developer FromSoftware took the approach of its previous cult hit Demon’s Souls, and brought it to a wide and appreciative audience.
Along with its unique level of challenge, Dark Souls also conveys beauty with its dilapidated, sad world. Its creative game design elements have been woven into dozens of games since, and even its own creators have distilled Dark Souls down to its best, most thrilling parts in two equally excellent games from this decade, Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
The first time I played P.T., I lay awake for hours, thinking about the horrible face of Lisa the ghost, the haunted radio commanding me to turn around, the disgusting talking bag of human remains.
It begins in a humdrum hallway, which, through a combination of subtle noises and flickers, makes me feel like I’m shuffling to my doom. It’s terrifying, yes, but its mundane setting makes the terror even sharper.
Sometimes the horror is grotesque; other times it relies on jump scares, or dreadful images lingering on the edges of my vision.
P.T. was a teaser for Hideo Kojima’s (never released) Silent Hills, but it stands on its own merits as a horror masterpiece, and an example of how short, intense experiences can be just as effective as long games.
6. League of Legends
League of Legends has existed for exactly one decade. In that time, it’s helped turn Twitch into a massive media platform, it’s brought esports into the mainstream, and it’s demonstrated that free games can be great.
Based on an intensely competitive reworking of real-time strategy mechanics, League of Legends is a genuine cultural catalyst, responsible for massive live events, popular music projects like K/DA, and online superstars. More than anything, it’s normalized watching games as a source of entertainment. This game made millions realize that there’s more to a game than the game itself.
5. Pokémon Go
In the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go changed the world. Launched as a janky, feature-light app, it was an immediate, worldwide success, prompting millions to range around their neighborhoods in search of augmented reality mini-monsters. Despite its success (or perhaps because of it), many regarded the game as a fad.
Three years on, Pokémon Go is still here, with loads more features, regular updates, stable servers and millions of players worldwide. It’s the first truly popular AR game, and one that lays the foundation for many more to come. What may be that the game’s greatest legacy is that it normalized the tracking and sharing of personal location data, all for the sake of fun.
4. Kentucky Route Zero
No game captures this decade as well as Kentucky Route Zero. Though it technically debuted in January 2013, its creators, Cardboard Computer, have released additional acts and interludes nearly every year since. Each individual piece found its way onto my personal top 10 list, albeit for different reasons. I appreciated the folksy, Lynchian mood of Act 1; the inventive use of VR with the interlude, “The Entertainment”; the bureaucratic coolness of the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces in Act 3.
Kentucky Route Zero felt like a guide through this weird decade, helping me understand the ways in which games were evolving away from rigid products into flowing, ongoing, malleable works of art. And similarly, its fictional worlds — ravaged by history, and yet oddly hopeful — showed me how to process our real world, which so often is both metaphorically and literally on fire.
While the game’s final act was supposed to launch last year, there’s a chance we won’t see the conclusion before the decade ends. That’s OK. Kentucky Route Zero has never fit comfortably into these sorts of spaces. In 2013, Polygon debated if an incomplete game could be our game of the year. In 2019, as we decide the game of the decade, we have embraced the reality that games are impossible to pin down. So sure, Kentucky Route Zero can be the game of this decade. And maybe the next one too.
Seven years ago, I called Spelunky the everlasting platformer. The randomly generated, insanely hard adventure game remains eminently playable and impactful to this day. Thanks to an impeccable design, Spelunky is never unfair (even if it sometimes feels that way).
Other great randomly generated platformers, like Noita and Rogue Legacy, owe much to the core conceit of Spelunky, which encourages care and thoughtfulness rather than rote memorization. It’s also got the most gosh-dang adorable pug the gaming world has ever seen. All this leaves us with one question: Can the sequel possibly match this high-water mark?
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Back in 2010, Nintendo looked like a spent force. While its rivals innovated with online services and technically advanced consoles, Nintendo sought ways to replicate its past, with tired ideas like a new Wii and a new DS. In the next few years, the company would come perilously close to irrelevance.
The Nintendo Switch, released in 2017, reversed the decline. It’s a brilliant little console/handheld hybrid that encapsulates the company’s innovation and daring. Breath of the Wild, Switch’s most notable launch game, draws upon Nintendo’s sense of grandeur and history. It’s a beautiful, painterly world waiting to be explored, crammed with adventure and magic.
Breath of the Wild infuses its open-world role-playing formula with a cast of wonderful characters and stories, each glimmering with fairy-tale darkness. It’s not an easy game, and yet it’s perfectly playable for young children and novice gamers. It constantly provokes and challenges with new problems and fresh solutions.
Ten years ago, this little survive-and-build indie game was just emerging from development test stage. In the years since, it’s established itself at the center of entertainment and personal creativity culture.
Minecraft is the gateway to gaming. It’s a creative playground for millions of passionate kids and creative adults. It’s the acceptable face of our collective addiction to the screaming pointlessness of screen life.
At the business end of Minecraft, owner Microsoft sees it as the key to its terrifying geo-tech utopian ambitions, via Minecraft Earth. Who will bet against this game spending at least another decade as a central component in our digital lives, and in the lives of those as-yet unborn?
With its blocky voxels and ping-pong audio effects, Minecraft neither looks nor sounds like a 21st-century game. And yet, it defines the best of the decade. It frames our children as inheritors of computing, and frames gaming as a potential force for good.
When our descendants look back upon us and upon our time, they will see many images: of tyrants and cruelty, of waste and stupidity. But they will also see Minecraft, within which the next generation, perhaps, will begin to learn how to build a better world.
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