Bob Dunn | Game On: What's the best video game of the decade?
The past decade in gaming began with poorly-executed flirtations with motion control and has ended on the cusp of a new console generation of dubious necessity.
The last 10 years saw content creation go mainstream and VR attempt to become something more than just a niche curiosity.
That's still a work in progress.
Digital delivery of software became more common, with more and more consumers foregoing physical media in favor of software they can download at home to play the moment its release becomes official.
But whatever technology was introduced over the last 10 years, it was merely window dressing around the games that kept players engaged.
But, is there a game that defines a decade?
Trends in gaming tend to run for far shorter periods of time than 10 years.
Stealth was the thing for a while, there was a time when you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a zombie game, Grand Theft Auto wannabes littered the landscape for years after military-themed first-person shooters were done with it.
And, there are closets, basements, spare rooms and landfills stuffed with plastic replicas of musical instruments purchased during the brief heyday of the music/rhythm game.
Success begets success and the gaming industry is all too happy to imitate and iterate until the audience is exhausted and has moved on.
But, if I had to pick one game that stood out to me as not only an example of excellence, but one that also represents the best of the era, it'd have to be Horizon Zero Dawn.
Hear me out.
It's perhaps not the most obvious choice; there are games into which I've put far more time, and because it's exclusive to the Playstation 4, many gamers haven't even had access to it.
It's a large and multi-layered game, but feels like it's of a smaller scale than the epic Mass Effect 2, which I'd also considered.
HZD was a tough sell when it was released by Guerilla Games in 2017.
It was a brand-new intellectual property from a game developer known for the Killzone franchise, a series of impressive-looking, highly-competent first-person shooters that never seemed to catch on with players, outside of a core fan base.
It featured a female protagonist and was set in a hybrid world that combined post-apocalyptic primitivism and futuristic technology.
Those who had access to the game and took the plunge into something that was neither familiar nor a sequel, enjoyed one of the best gaming experiences of the last 10 years.
HZD took the familiar framework of a third-person open-world adventure game and subverted all of it.
It tells the story of Aloy, a warrior in a post-apocalyptic world, populated by advanced mechanical beasts, which each require different strategies to defeat.
The game's fluid aesthetic draws from influences as diverse as films like "Clan of the Cave Bear," "The Matrix," and "Transformers," and makes it all appear seamless.
The open-world formula should be familiar to anyone who has played a third-person action game in the last 10 years, but what HZD does within that structure is what makes it remarkable.
Sonnets and haiku are also formulas, but finding the new in the spaces within those limitations is what makes them art.
The same goes for HZD.
Aloy herself is the first hint of the game's subversiveness.
She's a female character who Guerilla wisely chose to not over-sexualize. Her armor is actually appropriate and functional. Not a bare midriff in sight!
Not only does Aloy have her own satisfying character arc, but so do many of the male NPCs she encounters through the game.
It's those arcs that really set HZD's story apart from most others.
Each of those NPCs displays their own unique facet of toxic masculinity. From the one who is creepily infatuated, to the one who is dismissive because Aloy is female, to the one who suggests marriage immediately upon meeting her.
By game's end, each of those characters grows to respect Aloy and apologizes for their dismissal and/or objectification.
It's like a subtle primer on how not to be a sexist jerk and writers John Gonzalez and Ben McCaw earned a well-deserved Writers Guild of America award for their efforts.
And, finally, the combat is the bow that ties the whole package together.
You can actually feel yourself becoming more skilled during the game, incorporating dodges and use of elemental attacks to bring down larger and larger machines.
You start the game avoiding those larger enemies and end it by actively seeking them out for the sheer sport of it (and the crafting materials they carry.)
The combat is fun and challenging enough to sustain the game and, because your enemies are so varied and you have so many options at your disposal, it never feels repetitive.
The game ends on a bittersweet note, that will probably bring a tear to the eye of all but the most jaded of gamers and leaves the door wide open for a yet-to-be-announced sequel.
There's no way to know, of course, whether that sequel will help define the next 10 years, but, based on what we've seen so far, it should, at the very least, set the bar for the game that will.
And, I can't wait to see it.
Bob Dunn is The Eagle's courts reporter. When he's not hanging around the courthouse, he can usually be found playing "Destiny 2." You can reach Bob via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @BobDunn413 on Twitter.
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