The video game industry was already a billion dollar behemoth when it rolled into the 2010s. Over the past decade, the cultural cache of video games has grown and its profits are now greater than movies, television or music. The 2010s are when the hobby stopped being something semi-niche, and solidly took its place in the mainstream.
The tension between art and commerce isn’t the same in video games as it is in movies. There are fewer auteurs and more venture capitalists. During the past decade, some artists broke free of the business side and produced works of astounding beauty on par with any prestige television show. The business of video games also exploded, pulling in such obscene amounts of cash that legislators started to ask questions and consider regulations, particularly with regard to games including “microtransactions” which some have compared with gambling. This decade, parents didn’t worry about violence in video games so much as they worried about time and money spent on neverending live services like Fortnite and Star Wars: Battlefront II.
Here are the games that defined the decade and don’t forget to read TIME’s list of the best songs, TV shows, miniseries, movies, movie performances, nonfiction books, fiction books, gadgets and albums of the decade.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V is the most financially successful entertainment product of all time. At $6 billion in revenue and growing, the open world crime simulator has raked in more cash than Gone With the Wind or the Star Wars film franchise. The series reached its zenith with the fifth installment, mixing open world madness with an ambitious story. The cultural impact of Grand Theft Auto is hard to quantify. It’s been the center of multiple lawsuits, a focus for parents worried about violent video games and the subject of made-for-TV dramatizations. It’s so well known and so ubiquitous, that Ryan Reynolds is starring in a high-budget action blockbuster inspired by, but not directly based on, its online multiplayer mode.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo proved it could make a modern open world game. More than that, it proved it could create an open world game that was more interesting than what the competition was doing. Untethered from linear progression, players were free to explore Hyrule at their own pace and create their own adventures. It was also the Nintendo Switch’s killer app, a game that moved systems and delighted fans, when it launched with the new console.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds may have popularized the 1 vs. 100, battle royale shooter genre, but Fortnite flat out turned it into an inescapable cultural phenomenon. Fortnite started as a modular base building game. When developer Epic Games patched in the battle royale multiplayer mode (after the success of PUBG) and gave it away for free, players—especially young players—picked up Fortnite by the millions. Epic Games made so much money so fast that it launched its own distribution platform. The game is popular it’s launched the careers of superstar streamers like Ninja and scared parents about the addictive nature of video games.
Dark Souls (2011)
Dark Souls, from developer From Software, loomed over the decade like a gargoyle. The original Dark Souls has proven to be like the Velvet Underground’s first album; not everyone played it, but it inspired everyone who did. The very tough but fair difficulty, background approach to storytelling and satisfyingly tight control scheme has been repeatedly replicated and iterated upon, but never quite perfected, by other developers. From Software’s biggest success with its formula came with 2015’s Bloodborne—which ditched Dark Souls’ medieval aesthetic and focused on a Lovecraftian gothic nightmare where the best defense is a good offense. The most recent game to pay homage to Dark Souls is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. The blocking-focused lightsaber combat, replenishing enemies by gaining health and losing progress with death are straight out of From Software’s playbook.
League of Legends (2009)
Developer Riot Games released League of Legends at the end of 2009, but the game that helped define the multiplayer online battle arena game genre wouldn’t become a global phenomenon for a few more years. Now, it’s the gold standard for esports. League of Legends tournaments pack stadiums across the world and draw more viewers than the Super Bowl. In the past 10 years, Riot Games typified another theme of gaming’s 2010s: sexism. Gaming spent decades perceived as a boy’s club, and that toxic culture permeated the top levels of gaming’s biggest companies, with Riot Games executives being credibly accused of abuse by former employees.
Pokémon Go (2016)
For a few months there in 2016, it felt like the whole planet was playing Niantic’s mobile augmented reality game Pokémon Go. If you weren’t playing it, then you knew about it because everyday brought a fresh stream of news stories about the joys, adventures and mishaps of the people who walked around in real life, seeking virtual pocket monsters in hopes of catching them all. Players found a dead body while hunting rare Pokémon, tragically died when their hunts ran afoul of crime and generally gripped the nation for months. Years later, players still find new thrills and chills hunting Pokémon in the real world.
Minecraft is another game released in 2009 that grew into a cultural institution in the 2010s. If you’ve got kids, or know people who do, you know what Minecraft is. Ten years after its release, Minecraft is still the most watched game on YouTube, beating Fortnite by more than 40 billion views. In 2014, Minecraft creator Notch tweeted that he’d like to sell off the game and Microsoft stepped in to take it off his hands for $2.5 billion. Today, it’s the second best-selling game of all time behind the Nintendo Wii’s pack in game Wii Sports. With constant updates and a new mobile augmented reality version launching soon, Minecraft is poised to take its domination into the next decade.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Bethesda unleashed The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the world in 2011 and it’s remained at the top of the sales charts ever since. The flagship role-playing game has transitioned from one console generation to another, been ported to virtual reality and tweaked for release on the Nintendo Switch. Skyrim’s enduring charm is its open ended play style set in a gigantic and detailed open world. And it’s been helped along by a dedicated community of modders who have even further molded the game into a fantasy playground.
Other developers would chase this ideal through the decade, but few would achieve it.
Portal 2 (2011)
Developer Valve screamed into the new decade with the incredible Portal 2: a first person puzzle game that built off of the successful first game in every way, with a satisfying story and an increasingly clever mechanic in its teleporting portal gun.
Portal 2’s release was bittersweet. It marked the beginning of a decade where Valve stopped doing what made it so famous: making incredible video games. The 2000s saw the release of Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead and Counter-Strike, all enormously successful games. In the 2010s, Valve mostly iterated on Dota 2, released the Vive virtual reality headset with HTC and dodged questions about Half-Life 3.
Valve has continued to make billions from its Steam distribution platform but failed to produce a game as genre bending and enjoyable as Portal 2. It ended the decade by finally announcing a follow up to Half-Life, something fans had waited more than 15 years for. But Half-Life: Alyx is a virtual reality title and it’s unclear if Valve can bring its game-making magic to the new platform, or, for that matter, a new decade.
Thankfully, we’ll always have GLaDOS, Chell and Wheatley.
Disco Elysium (2019)
Released just months before the start of the 2020s, Disco Elysium is the perfect punctuation mark on a decade of excellent games. It’s a video game that’s steeped in the past but looking towards the future. It’s the kind of video game that only comes at the turn of the decade, that special time when something ends and something new is born.
In this very dense role-playing game, players wake up with a killer hangover in a grungy hotel room and quickly realize they’re a police officer in the hotel to solve a crime. But that’s all they remember. The details of the crime—and their personal life—are gone and it’s up to the player to fill in the blanks.
Disco Elysium is a game that looks and plays like a game from 1999, a 2D isometric throwback with fully rendered backgrounds and point and click navigation. The storytelling and mechanics, however, feel like they come from the future. Players put points into stats like “Esprit De Corps” which allows them to understand what cops are thinking, or “Shivers” which allows the city’s streets to speak to you. Leveling up involves pondering strange ideas that alter your skills and change the way your detective sees the world. It’s a game that breathes new life into the old RPG format.
Disco Elysium is proof of what video game fans have known for years: that the medium has special strengths and can tell unique stories you won’t see on TV or read in a book. It’s a game that highlights how all video games are art.
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