Into The Spine’s Games of the Decade: Part 1

Too many games

2019 is coming to an end, so we thought on sharing short stories and anecdotes surrounding our favorite games from the decade. In this first part, we take a look at the chosen games by Jordan, Cian, Liz, Jay P., Dylan, Andrew K., Jason, and Aimee.

Jordan – Dark Souls (2011)

I remember spotting a lone preowned version of the steelbook edition of Dark Souls in my local Gamestation (now defunct) in early 2012, months after its release. With no online buzz to pre-ordain my purchase, my 16-year-old brain was simply drawn to the fantasy packaging and later into the clutches of its peculiar ambience. A victory lap in archaeological storytelling, rotten trees full of mushroom men and agoraphobia-inducing drained lakes ruled by ancient dragons lay in wait for the curious, backed up by a combat system that has since been imitated but never beaten. From the melancholy strings of Firelink Shrine to the arresting mixture of emotions felt when I realised I was stranded in the dreamlike Painted World of Ariamis, I’ll never forget my first naive strides through From Software’s grimdark world, and seemingly, neither will any of the third-person action games that followed in its brave footsteps.

Cian – The Witcher 3

Tempestuous wilds, bloodcurdling leshens, drunken gallivanting eventuating in twilight hour calls to elven sorceresses with no time for your bullshit — The Witcher 3 is a sublime hodgepodge of so many preposterous phenomena that it should be an irredeemable mess.

And yet, somehow, it endures as one of the most tremendously inspired RPGs to have ever been released. The world is alive whether you interact with it or not: spilled blood in remote Skelligan forests regularly occasions wolves to search for an early supper, while farmhand squabbles in back alley watering holes rage against the dying of the light with or without the discordant intervention of a certain gruff witcher, honorary pugilist.

At its core, The Witcher 3 tells a story about family, one that not only tugs at your heartstrings, but makes a highly respectable attempt to rip them clean out your chest. At the same time, there’s a humour to The Witcher, teeming with dry wit unafraid to make an arse of itself. Its emotional sincerity is source, catalyst, terminus, all. Even as time goes by and the story is told once more, something will always end in The Witcher 3, and, sure enough, something will always begin again.

Liz – Fire Emblem: Awakening (2012)

In another timeline, the Fire Emblem series would be dead. The series was always niche, and had trouble garnering attention from anyone other than the most hardcore of SRPG fans. Intelligent System’s Fire Emblem: Awakening came with an ultimatum–sell over 250k copies, or that’s it for the series. As it turns out, Awakening sold over two million copies, thanks in no small part in Intelligent System’s efforts to make the series more accessible to newcomers with the Casual setting and ability to match up your units romantically. As a series veteran, I adored Awakening, both for the changes that the title brought to the series and for the larger impact that it made. Fire Emblem isn’t just a niche series anymore, and now is one of Nintendo’s flagship series.

Jay P. – Bastion (2011)

I don’t know, man, picking favorites is hard. When I think back on favorite games of the decade, I tend to think about games that changed how I viewed the medium, in ways that would stick with me long past the end credits of the game in question. I think Bastion, Supergiant’s maiden voyage, is the earliest release to fit the bill. 

I was 16 when Bastion arrived, and had only been playing games with any amount of real narrative to them for a few years. When I started Bastion up, and heard the gruff narrator, Rucks, start giving voice to the game’s narrative against the backdrop of crumbling cities and guitar twangs, I was hooked immediately. 

As you smash, shoot and dodge your way through the game’s vibrant level design, the story is told to you not in grand, sweeping strokes, but in tiny bites. When you enter a broken-down home and find the stone-and-ash remains of the people who once lived there, Rucks will tell you a bit about who those people were and what they did. You come by the Sole Regret, former haven for folks looking for a drink and a song after a hard day’s work, and Rucks will muse about the good old days there. Sure, there’s a story of a war between peoples, and the terrible things that war made people do, but Bastion is a work of art in how it never makes that story bigger than your path through its world.

Dylan – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I get frustrated with a lot of open world games that shove #content into your face with icons, maps, and overbearing NPCs. I get especially frustrated with games that shove their nose into your business every thirty seconds to make sure you’re on the right track. Both of which are why Breath of the Wild struck my heart in such a perfect way. Where most games act as curated experiences with a virtual developer breathing down your neck, Breath of the Wild is a lung-full of clean air. It’s a natural experience in an industry filled with digital ones.

After the tutorial Great Plateau, BOTW is largely unconcerned with how you play, content to let you do most anything. No NPCs talk to you. No quest flags remind you. It’s you and the land, a truly meditative journey that is dictated by your own vision and curiosity. And honestly, this soliloquy in adventure has cleared my head so many times that it’s ruined other games for me. BOTW is a game of the decade because it’s the one title that has changed the landscape of criticism within my mind. “Is this game intruding too much on my space? Does it respect my time and intelligence? Does it feel mentally rewarding to play?” All are questions that critics love to ask themselves when playing new experiences, but BOTW was the greatest to redefine the standards of my answers.

Andrew K. – Red Dead Redemption 2

Grand Theft Auto V is full of assholes. Everyone sucks. And while there’s some emotional complexity to the three assholes at its core, everyone outside that trio is unredeemable. Embarrassingly cartoonish suckass dipshits. 

But, what a world! Reactive, immersive, expansive: Los Santos (obnoxious billboards aside) is a highwater mark for open-world city design. As always, the world is a delight to poke and prod: I’ve rarely had more fun in a game than climbing on top of a semi truck and launching rockets at every police vehicle in sight, including the half-dozen heavily-armed helicopters that eventually pursued me. But, it’s also a joy to inhabit in its quieter moments. The world feels most alive when you’re exploring it by bicycle, taking in the sights and sounds and almost feeling the California sunshine on your shoulders

With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar decided to take its characters as seriously as it has always taken its open-worlds. And, brilliantly, the team built this open-world around its characters, centering the experience on the Van der Linde gang’s camp, the most impressive hub area I’ve ever seen in a game (and hub areas are, like, my favorite thing in games). Missions begin here and end here, spinning up out of conversations with fellow gang members. As you head out on missions, the camp remains an anchor; a place that your thoughts will return in your time away; a place that you miss as you pitch a lonely tent in the wilderness, drinking a bitter cup of coffee by yourself. 

This is a game about entropy and, if you played the first Red Dead Redemption, you know that this gang eventually falls apart. But, the story’s slow burn downward thrust is made all the more powerful as your camp slowly withers away; as characters you grew to love are no longer waiting for you by the fire. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the anti-power fantasy. And as AAA games continue to explore vulnerability (as this year’s Death Stranding has) RDR2 will remain a benchmark for disempowering storytelling and design.

Jason – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

As a lifelong fan of being punched in the face; it’s probably not all that surprising that I adore what FromSoftware does with games. I’ve been enamoured with them since I first laid my hands on Demon’s Souls, and while I have loved all of them so far, none of them quite resonated with me in the same way that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice did. It’s partly the setting — lord knows I love me some samurai — but it’s also the incredible way the combat feels. When you’re standing toe-to-toe with someone sparring in real life, it can often end up feeling like a dance; you can see it in the way that many martial arts practice their techniques in forms or kata. Sekiro manages to replicate this with its wonderful blend of deflecting and attacking. The introduction of a posture meter instead of a stamina bar changes things to make you feel like a badass. It also manages to distil the learning curve of these games into its purest form, with your skills being the only thing that is ever relevant. The loss of grinding hurts in some ways, but ultimately Sekiro represents what I believe to be the perfect endpoint of FromSoft’s current philosophy. It’s just really good, okay? 

Aimee – Dragon Age 2 (2011)

Picture this: you’ve just arrived to a strange place with your family, who you sort of hate, and then meet the worst but the best people you’ll ever meet and then get the opportunity to kiss all of them. That’s Dragon Age 2, and I love it. It takes the Hero’s Journey, a tale which we all know intimately thanks to every medium we’ve ever interacted with, and let’s you explore the person, rather than the hero that they become. 

It has romance, friendship and betrayal, it pulls you in through a group of companions who mix together as well as oil and water. They feel real, and are ultimately the heart that draws you and Hawke to the small, contained world that is the city of Kirkwall. No other game has ever done that for me before.

Also Isabela is hot.

By Jordan Oloman

Geordie journalist with a passion for old-school adventure games and everything melancholy. Bylines at IGN, Kotaku, PCGamesN, Playboy and more. @JordanOloman

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