Welcome everyone to the top ten! We’re at the point in the list where the games are ever the more difficult to place, where difficult decisions over what entry and why have to be addressed with almost every item here. Expect to be either surprised, outraged, or thoroughly satisfied at the majority of the choices from here on out—there probably won’t be much of an in between.
10. Bioshock Infinite
So, Bioshock in general was a difficult one to place. I absolutely adore the Bioshock series for what it manages to do and how it manages to influence an industry with every one of its entries. The original Bioshock was a revelation for me, it was one of the first games that I genuinely loved so much that I wasn’t afraid to ignore the fact that it was totally creepy af. The setting was perfect, the twists were jaw-dropping, and every inch of Bioshock‘s world dripped with authenticity.
But, as atmospheric and captivating as Bioshock‘s Rapture was, Bioshock Infinite‘s Columbia, its story and the character of Elizabeth absolutely blew me away. It’s hard for me to place specifically why that is, why Columbia ranks higher than Rapture in my book, but I believe it comes down to—for lack of a better way of saying it—the city, the density and life present in the city, and the aforementioned character of Elizabeth.
Where Rapture was a city meant to be free of the confines of modern society—government, religion, things like that—Columbia stages itself as the opposite. The moment the city comes into view, the purpose of its existence is apparent: to function as a beacon of American exceptionalism where the actual America has failed. Columbia is alive, it’s colorful where Rapture was pallid, people have lives, are shopping and singing—Rapture was merely a sign of what was. And while what Rapture was is thoroughly interesting and leaves a lot to the imagination, there’s something captivating about exploring Columbia as it exists today.
Another big point is the character of Elizabeth who, still to this day, I believe, is one of the most engaging and believable NPC followers to ever be present in a game. If ever there was an aspect of Bioshock Infinite that made Columbia feel more lively, it is Elizabeth and the way she constantly interacts with the world in interesting ways. She dances with citizens, comments on stores and stalls, makes you, the player, question your place in this world and the idyllic facade of Columbia’s dream. Were it not for her, Columbia would be populous, but it wouldn’t be quite as lively. Elizabeth injects a voice of reason and human element into the conflict and rounds out an already dynamic whole.
It’d be difficult to say that Bioshock Infinite is better than the original—so I won’t, but I will say that Infinite is different enough to stand out from the previous entries while retaining what makes them great. It may not be your preferred Bioshock, but it’s a damn good one for sure and is a good enough game to edge its way onto my top ten.
Ever since I was in high school, I’ve kept up with the yearly shooter releases. The fall comes and so does a Halo, so does a Call of Duty, and for years, the cycle would go like this: I’d get excited for the game, I’d pick the game up, I’d play it awhile, and then put it away. I’d play something else, develop an itch for the shooter again, play it a spell, before setting it down, and a couple months before the next big entry, the cycle would start again. But during the past few years, something’s changed. The excitement I had for the competitive shooter has dwindled. I play less of them and the ones I do play, I play for less time; it’s difficult to pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it so long. Maybe it’s because my friends have moved on. But my guess were I to give it would be that I’ve largely just gotten bored.
I’ve yearned for years for the fresh experience, for something well crafted, interesting and unique enough that I would come back and feel like I was playing something new months or years after its release.
That’s how Overwatch found its place here.
Overwatch is perhaps the most unique, well-balanced, accessible and interesting shooter I’ve played in years. It’s competitive, it’s intense, but it’s also a game that is so incredibly happy. It’s rare that you find a game that just brings you joy when you play it, where, win or lose, do well or do poorly, you can still say you had fun, but Overwatch brings that. It manages to take these heroes your playing and project them onto you, making every play feel personal, every success feel substantial, and every moment feel as though you are actually doing something worthy of being called heroic.
Maybe something better comes later this year, or Overwatch has a sequel, but I can see myself in a couple of years still playing a lot of this game—and that’s an impressive feat in an industry inundated with similar, yearly releases to be something that people will want to play for months or years to come.
8. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I was apprehensive to put Breath of the Wild on this list if for no other reason than the fact that it is not only the most recent game that I have played, but the one I am still playing. How can I say, with absolute authority, that a game I haven’t finished, or even seen the majority of for that matter, could place not only on a “favorite games” list, but near the tippy-top of them all?
I realize as I’m saying this that what I am saying may not make much sense without explanation, but Breath of the Wild, even in its earliest moments, has returned to me, in a sense, a true grasp of what it means to play video games again.
Modern games have spent years refining the open world experience, but much of the exploration inherent to that experience has largely disappeared. Everything’s a collectible, everything has a waypoint, and nothing is shown to you or asked for your attention without a big ol’ arrow pointing you some direction toward a thing you may wish you’d discovered instead. Breath of the Wild manages to remove itself from the idea that you need to, or should even, find everything. There’re waypoints, sure, but there’s a lot you’ll never see: camps on top of mountain peaks, one-off characters on an island at sea, and the game rarely seems to bat an eye at the fact that you may never know they existed.
That’s true to a degree with any open world game—there’s stuff you may never find—but the fascinating thing I’ve found the longer I play Breath of the Wild is how much I want to go looking. I want to scale the side of that mountain, I want to glide down to that island. There isn’t always a reward or a reason, but I want to do it regardless. I can’t say I’d say the same for many other open world games. The world becomes stale, the side quests, monotonous, and the sense of exploration you should still have is replaced by “Am I done yet?”
Breath of the Wild makes me feel like I’m a ten-year-old kid again. It reminds me that there is more to a game than a trophy, or achievement, a side quest, or collectible, that game worlds are magical, wondrous things, with nooks and crannies and secrets to uncover. It reminds me that playing video games should be an experience, be they good or bad, and while I love and continue to love many other open world games, and other The Legend of Zelda games for that matter, I truly adore Breath of the Wild, so much so that it finds itself here after a very short time having played it.
7. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
I don’t believe there to be a developer more capable of delivering an engaging, believable, and cinematic experience than the people over at Naughty Dog. Throw it back to the Crash Bandicoot days and maybe that wouldn’t be true, but the Uncharted series is a fascinating one because of what it has managed to accomplish.
I remember when I was writing stories in college, one of my issues was writing dialogue. It’s more difficult than you’d think—getting people to sound like they are actual people— but often times when I would struggle, I would load up Uncharted, I would scour the cutscenes, record the mannerisms, the quirks, the inflections and the cadences, denoting what made every character’s presence different from the other characters in the scene. Uncharted has never failed at delivering a moment that feels entirely authentic and its ability to do so is captivating.
The difficulty in placing Uncharted on this list though is deciding which entry to choose. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has my heart. I’ve played the game half a dozen times through, the set pieces are amazing and it easily could be called one of the best games of the last generation, but Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the most recent entry to the series, I believe, takes the spot, if for no other reason than the qualities listed above.
There’s something so earnest, so grounded about Uncharted 4—the characters and their arcs are coming to a close, this story is starting to wrap, and so much of the time we spend with each of them is spent developing who they are. Uncharted 4 is a more personal story than any of the other entries, and while there is a treasure, and exploration, and typical Uncharted fare, this entry felt more introspective than the rest, more resonant and relevant to the person who is playing.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a perfect cap on a perfect series. I hate that it’s ended, but I’m happier than anything that it went out on an incredible note.
6. World of Warcraft
When I was in middle school I got this idea in my head that I needed to play football, not because I genuinely loved playing football, but because I was the odd kid. You know, that kid: the heavy one, the one with few friends, the one that liked girls, but never said anything about it because…well, what was the point, right? And as the odd kid, I had reasoned in my mind that afternoons of practice and weekly games spent sweating into a bowl with a face guard was vastly preferred to the things I enjoyed if it meant that I would be recognized.
So I played football, but didn’t really like playing football. I got bullied by some of the older members of my team, I sat entirely on the sidelines, I spent afternoons at practice, an evening at a game, a weekend or two fundraising for some reason that I can’t even remember, and despite it, I kept on. The next year I joined up to start the year anew, before, essentially, having to quit.
A couple of days after joining the team my 8th grade year, I discovered I had appendicitis.
Bye bye football. Bye bye school—I was laid up following surgery for weeks, and during the time I spent recovering, I got a copy of World of Warcraft from my mom.
I use this story as an introduction to setup what World of Warcraft‘s become for me over the 12 years I’ve played it. When I was younger, I spent way too much time worried about what other people thought of me. I figured that if I acted a way that I wasn’t, dressed a way that I didn’t, pretended I wasn’t smart, that I didn’t like to read, that I didn’t enjoy video games in my free time, that I would have more friends, be liked better—be a more desirable me.
But in playing World of Warcraft for as long as I have, I realized who I was. I was a dork. I was a nerd. I was doof, and a geek. I liked things people thought were so mortifyingly stupid because I actually thought they were cool. And that’s who I’ve always been. Maybe the things I like are embarrassing or maybe they’re the cat’s bananas, but I’d rather enjoy the things I enjoy than pretending that I don’t.
World of Warcraft holds a very tender place in my heart. It was my first MMO, the foundation for many friendships, and a long-lasting influence on so many of the stages of life that I’ve been in. And while the game itself has had its ups and downs, it remains one of my favorites, if for no other reason than the fact that it taught me to be more like me.