The Games We Played: The Skinny at 10
As The Skinny reaches the end of its first decade, we recap ten influential videogames of our lifetime. Inevitably there were some heartbreaking omissions, but we maintain that this is a pretty good snapshot of the industry has seen since issue one
Resident Evil 4 (2005) by Capcom
There are three types of action adventure videogames; the ones that came before Resident Evil 4, the ones that came after and, of course, RE4 itself. That may sound like hyperbole but there is no doubting the massive influence of Capcom’s fourth main entry into their long-running horror franchise.
Name a third-person shooter post-2005 and you’re basically naming a game that doffs its cap to RE4. What’s chiefly impressive is that director Shinji Mikami tore up the rulebook that had served him so well for previous instalments; out went the lumbering claustrophobic dread, in came the action set-pieces and all-out gun fights. On paper, such an overhaul should have been an uneven mess at best, yet RE4 is as well-sculpted as protagonist Leon Kennedy’s improbable pecs.
Tight mechanics, responsive AI and a rolling cavalcade of incredible boss fights ensure that events never dip during its generous running time. While the series itself has waned since this undisputed highlight, the influence of RE4 can be seen in just about any high-end, third-person action title released in the past ten years; Gears of War, Uncharted and even The Last of Us all owe RE4 a debt.
Whilst the wholesale adoption of twin-stick controls has perhaps rendered the original GameCube/PS2 release as borderline unplayable, the 2007 Wii update mitigates this and serves as the definitive version, ensuring that RE4 remains an essential and vital gaming experience ten years on. [Darren Carle]
Wii Sports (2006) by Nintendo
Given the number of games on this list chosen for their outstanding quality, which changed how we perceive the industry or raised the bar in terms of quality and what we expect from our games, Wii Sports managed to hide in plain sight.
It was nothing special in terms of graphics and the breadth of the game could be discovered in a couple of hours but, for once, none of this mattered.
The gameplay was perhaps the most intuitive of any title ever released; teaching beginners to play was simply a matter of putting the Wiimote in their hand, reminding them (repeatedly) to use the wrist strap and to act like they were swinging a golf club. Sure, eventually everyone learnt you just have to wiggle the controller to return a serve, but until then Wii Sports felt revolutionary.
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Photo gallery: Highlights of our first ten years
And it was. Bundled with the Wii for much of its life, it drove sales as much as any long-running franchise could. For regular gamers it introduced a new peripheral which is still in use a generation on whilst people who hadn’t played a game since Tetris on the original Game Boy started comparing scores in golf and techniques in bowling.
Suddenly it was socially acceptable to challenge a near stranger to a quick game of tennis in their own home, and playing a few rounds on Wii Sports became almost ritualised when visiting friends or as an icebreaker at parties.
The popularity of Wii Sports reshaped Nintendo, steering the company away from intricate, beloved, but ultimately niche first party games that had been their speciality since the NES era to appeal to the massive new audience of ‘casual’ gamers, influencing the industry we see today. [Stewart McIver]
Portal (2007) by Valve Corporation
With a special edition re-release of the original game, a full blown sequel in 2011, various spin-offs and over seventy industry accolades, it’s easy to forget the humble origins of Portal.
Released in 2007 as part of Valve’s Orange Box compilation, Portal was originally mooted as a bonus title to complement the package's main attractions; Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. Despite such esteemed company, Portal outshone its peers. How many titles bend not just the concepts of space but also of game genres?
Merging the first-person shooter with puzzle mechanics was ground-breaking enough, but Valve’s subtle world-building, deft story-telling and genuinely funny scripting created a videogame like no other. That said, Portal 2 is arguably the better game, but almost everything that made it great was already evident first time around.
Other titles have felt Portal’s influence (last year's Talos Principle and the more recent Magnetic: Cage Closed for example) but Portal’s importance runs deeper. There can barely be a serious game developer out there who hasn’t played this micro-masterpiece. Its subtle story cues are exemplary and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the majority of games that have since employed a similar narrative approach owe a debt to Portal.
Most of all though, Valve captured hearts and minds with what could have been a throwaway title, served up as an aside. Instead, Portal remains a title that leaves gamers of all persuasions satiated. [Darren Carle]
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) by Infinity Ward
Modern Warfare is a game that holds great legacy and sway over many games that came to follow it.
Not only did developers Infinity Ward breathe fresh life into a series that had grown stale on the tales of WW2, it also systematically rewrote the playbook as to what online multiplayer could look like. A story between Ultranationalists and states being used as pawns was spun with deft and poise whilst believable characters acted out wonderful set pieces, from the opening cargo-ship raid to taking control of an AC-130 gunship as you rained down death from above. Or what about the A-Bomb explosion that killed your seemingly invincible protagonist?
Not only did it show that you weren't a walking tank but that, sometimes, actions outside of your control can mean the difference between life and death.
Whilst class-based multiplayer was nothing new at the time, CoD 4 provided a persistent experience-based system that was full of customisation, allowing players to play the way they wanted to whilst Infinity Ward managed to keep the game balanced.
It was this particular facet – its accessibility – rather than the showboating particle effects or in-game lighting that modern FPSs have since taken from the game. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a title that helped propel gaming into the mainstream consciousness, to the point that today, few can say they’ve never heard of Infinity Ward’s ground-breaking franchise. [Tom Hillman]
Braid (2008) by Number None Inc.
Braid emerged on our screens in 2008 and, like the intrepid explorer hacking his way through the big studio jungle before finally finding his way to a clearing, it cut a path behind it for others to follow.
Even from a purely mechanical point of view it was influential; it wouldn’t be hard to find a developer in any studio, indie or otherwise, who would credit Braid as having had an impact on their attitudes to game design. But perhaps more significant than this is the change in attitude towards indie gaming that it helped to bring about.
It would obviously be over simplistic and false to attribute the success of all indie games since 2008 to Braid, however it would also be wrong to underestimate its importance.
Braid showed publishers, distributors, and aspiring developers that small games made on a tight budget could be a success. Not just a ‘critical success’, which to the ears of the money men holding so many strings in the industry sounds exactly the same as ‘flop’, but a financial success as well.
Indie gaming is now a rich, diverse world with new ideas emerging constantly, keeping the medium fresh. Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, deserves a huge amount of credit for helping create an environment in which such creativity can thrive. [Liam Patrick Hainey]
Red Dead Redemption (2010) by RockStar San Diego
The stars paint the night sky as The Skinny brings its horse to a steady trot underneath and the atmospheric music kicks in. “Wow”.
We've just crossed into Mexico for the first time – no switch to a cut-scene for this cinematic moment, rather we get to play through it, taking in all that the gorgeous landscape has to offer. This may seem like over-romanticising, but Red Dead Redemption is a very romantically realised game – a love letter to the Western that never loses Rockstar’s trademark penchant for gallows humour and ultra-violence.
Moments like this are quite common in RDR, marking a maturity in Rockstar’s storytelling paired with a stunningly crafted world. The passion put into its characters and story is painstakingly obvious, with as much reward given for living the life of a ruthless outlaw or vigilante drifter.
Drawing from countless cinematic Western influences as far ranging as 1969’s The Wild Bunch right up to 2005’s The Proposition, the game set up a standard of cinema-meets-videogame blend that could be seen in later titles such as 2011’s L.A. Noire.
After several entries in the more juvenile Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption showcased Rockstar’s ability to ‘grow up’. As arguably the most influential game developers in the world, and with the sheer quality and depth of this fictional snapshot of the Old American frontier, they set the bar high for future open world games. [Alex Bennett]
Minecraft (2011) by Mojang
Swedish game developer Mojang caused a sensation back in 2009 when it released the alpha version of Minecraft. Several ports later and it is now one of the most popular titles on the planet, even being used as a teaching method in some schools.
Using a block-based visual style, Minecraft tasks its players with using different materials excavated from around the world to build grand designs, whilst fending off skeletons, zombies, and creepers. Players are also permitted to get involved in plenty of cool mini-games online using the numerous servers. These offer tons of variation to the gameplay and are updated regularly by a strong player base.
Minecraft is one of the few universally playable games and has only improved over time on account of its dedicated modding community. It’s left a lasting impression on the industry too, prompting endless copycats, mountains of merchandise and spin-offs.
If you’ve paid any attention to gaming websites over the last few years, it’s been impossible to ignore the awe-inspiring creations people have made within the game, from replications of real monuments to whole fantasy worlds. Alongside some of Nintendo’s big-hitters, it is one of the few gaming titles to break into the public consciousness and become a household name. This alone earns it a place on this list. [Jack Yarwood]
Dark Souls (2011) by FromSoftware
When FromSoftware released Dark Souls in 2011, the game’s very ethos seemed to run counter to every established convention that had grown up around big budget games at the time.
In a gaming landscape increasingly dominated by on-rails, formulaic experiences that sacrificed depth in the name of accessibility, Dark Souls threw the rulebook out the window with its brutal difficulty, obtuse systems and a complete lack of hand-holding.
In short, Dark Souls was everything that games weren’t supposed to be anymore and yet it succeeded in spectacular fashion. The game sold 5.5 million copies and spawned a large and vibrant online community that has taken the Souls series to places even its developers never imagined.
Dark Souls’ old school values have been embraced by millions of players frustrated by the sterile and shallow experiences served up by many so-called AAA developers, who have since plundered the game’s innovations and worked them into their own titles.
The legacy of Dark Souls can be seen clearly in the combat systems and overall tone of two of the most high-profile RPGs of recent years, Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, but the game’s influence reaches into other genres too.
Rogue Legacy and Titan Souls are just a couple of the many indie titles to take Dark Souls’ infamous difficulty and run with it. Elements of the game’s asynchronous multiplayer have even shown up in Bungie’s Destiny, reputedly the most expensive game ever made. [Jodi Mullen]
The Last of Us (2013) by Naughty Dog
When The Last of Us was unleashed on the public in 2013, it set the benchmark for cinematic storytelling in games, featuring an immersive world and amazing writing. Naughty Dog’s spin on the popular outbreak story focused heavily on human relationships rather than blood and gore, dealing with intimate themes such as grief and sacrifice.
The game tells most of its story through the interaction between two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they search for the remaining fireflies, a revolutionary group who may just hold the key to developing a cure to the cordyceps infection.
It surprised almost everyone with its depth, and provided us with some of the greatest DLC ever made in the form of Left Behind, a prequel to the main game featuring Ellie and her best friend/love interest Riley. This not only told its own incredible story, but it somehow managed to improve upon the original experience. Key moments from the core game were given even more context, making it so much harder to mop up our tears once we’d finally finished playing.
The Last of Us and its DLC came at a time when developers were finally starting to pay attention to gaming's shifting demographic, catering to a more diverse audience and therefore validating other companies to do the same. Its importance cannot be understated. Its artistry cannot be dismissed. [Jack Yarwood]
Gone Home (2013) by Fullbright
Putting Gone Home on this list might seem premature given it’s barely two years old. Yet in that short time, Fullbright’s debut project has kicked up more of a fuss amongst the gaming community than perhaps any other title in recent memory.
Besides attracting its share of plaudits and criticisms, Gone Home has become the de facto reference point for an entirely new type of game, one that privileges storytelling and characterisation over traditional videogame virtues like competition and excitement. Power fantasy, it is not: there are no enemies to kill or obstacles to overcome in Gone Home, nor does the world need saving.
Instead, you navigate a decidedly ordinary house located somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, piecing together, from the myriad bits and bobs, a story of strained family relationships, angsty teenage rebellion and first love.
While some – including the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – welcomed its vision of a more accessible, contemplative video game with open arms, others saw its minimal interaction and negligible challenge as an affront to the medium, responding with an international hate campaign that harboured some nasty connotations given the game’s unprecedented advocacy of gay characters.
Either way, Gone Home wasn't the first of its ilk – Dear Esther told a similarly grounded human story a year earlier – but Fullbright’s effort captured the zeitgeist like few indie productions before or since. With its intimate, everyday subject matter and subdued tone, it sketched the template for the videogame equivalent of arthouse cinema in the face of mainstream gaming’s Hollywood obsession. [Andrew Gordon]