Last updated: December 18, 2019
So here it is, the ultimate list—the entire artform summarized in six games—with the logic behind every choice explained in detail, and stringing them all together into the ultimate game theory narrative. It would help to have my 1962-2020 Game of the Year Awards open in another tab so you can get a quick overview of the historical context of every decade, and the kind of competition each game had to beat in order to win the award and be featured here (and it goes without saying that every game of the decade was also game of the year for the year of its release).
Game of the 1960s: SPACEWAR!
There's no contest here and not much to explain, Steve Russell's Spacewar! (1962) launched the art of videogames because, as I have explained at length in my essay on the game, and unlike all previous attempts at digital games, this was the first completely original game designed to run on a computer. It was also the first artistic game, in the sense that it simulated something interesting and exciting—a space war!, exclamation mark included to underscore the point—as opposed to the dreary "tennis" simulators or versions of simplistic games like tic-tac-toe that everyone else was experimenting with at the time. Here was, at last, an alternate reality and strong illusion coming from the brain of someone with artistic flair and imagination, and nothing else released during that decade came anywhere near to having as much of an impact on the artform and shaping its future as Steve Russell's Spacewar! would, giving rise first to the entire hugely popular all the way to the early-'90s shooting genre, and in a larger sense to real-time action mechanics in general that would at length prove to be the supreme type of videogame mechanics over the turn-based variety that would be invented later and achieve brief prominence.
Game of the 1970s: ADVENTURE
Will Crowther's Adventure (1976) was without a doubt the big videogame event of the '70s, and a huge step forward in the evolution of the artform from silly triangles shooting little dots at each other or some such nonsense to the maximally immersive alternate realities and lucid dreams they were always destined to become. Like much of the nerdhood of the time, Crowther was a pen-and-paper D&D player, but at the same time an MIT graduate working as a defense contractor as part of the original ARPAnet development team that would lay down the foundations of the modern Internet. And all those guys back then with any artistic sense in them were deeply engaged with either trying to translate the role-playing experience to the digital format, or playing the games of those who did. Crowther was one of the makers, but the approach he pioneered was radically different from everyone else's. While Gary Whisenhunt's and Ray Wood's cheekily-named dnd (1974) focused on the tactical part of the equation and all the attendant calculations and obsessing over what are essentially glorified spreadsheets, Crowther's Adventure focused on the narrative, which was by far the more immersive of the two aspects. Of course, the numbers were important here too, because no game or even computer could function without them; but as I have explained at length in my landmark 2008 essay, On Role-playing Games, they must be kept strictly under the hood for maximum immersion, exactly as in reality. The result was the birth of the adventure genre and the introduction of real human narrative to the artform, a revolutionary innovation that would eventually impact the design of every single game made apart from mediocre autistic crap like Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris (1984) and its ilk (which still figures high on lists of the "best games ever" by people who have not the faintest hint of artistic sense in their entire being).
Game of the 1980s: PITFALL!
Game design has always had one goal, if only unconsciously: complete immersion in Total Recall-style and Matrix-style virtual scenarios. But since this goal was daunting, especially given the technical limitations that early designers had to deal with and which even today we haven't quite managed to entirely overcome, progress has always happened in piecemeal fashion, with separate games and genres and development teams dutifully working for years and decades on separate components that would eventually be united and synthesized in games of higher genres (because genres are no more equal than games or anything else in existence, as I explain in detail in my monumental art theory essay, On Genre and the Tree of Gaming). This piecemeal development and artistic evolution perfectly mirrors the piecemeal evolution of man, as described by Nietzsche in The Will to Power, since evolution is a cosmic process that functions in all areas and at all levels of the universe in the Heraclitean flux:
Most men represent pieces and fragments of man: one has to add them up for a complete man to appear. Whole ages, whole peoples are in this sense somewhat fragmentary; it is perhaps part of the economy of human evolution that man should evolve piece by piece. But that should not make one forget for a moment that the real issue is the production of the synthetic man; that lower men, the tremendous majority, are merely preludes and rehearsals out of whose medley the whole man appears here and there, the milestone man who indicates how far humanity has advanced so far.
And so it is with art in general, and videogames in particular, with David Crane's Pitfall! (1982) being certainly one such milestone game. What it accomplished was to take the real-time action of Steve Russell's Spacewar! and the narrative focus of Will Crowther's Adventure and fuse them into... a real-time narrative game, an action-adventure game. Pitfall! essentially created the side-scrolling action genre. Although it did not scroll, it had all the features of such games, such as the ability to travel up and down on multiple levels of play. It was also much longer than other games of its time, which typically lasted only a few minutes. Many of the game mechanics were copied wholesale by other developers, and the resulting genre would dominate the rest of the '80s and the early-'90s before being translated to three dimensions and leading to 3D action-adventures such as Shinji Mikami's Bio Hazard (1996) and Warren Spector's Deus Ex (2000), and eventually culminating with the open-world action-adventure games that were always destined to dominate the future.
Game of the 1990s: SID MEIER'S CIVILIZATION
By the 1990s it was clear that "narrative adventure" was the most interesting genre by far and the most ripe for further development and experimentation. And what was the greatest narrative of all? The greatest narrative known to man? The history of civilization of course. No greater narrative will ever be devised, and even when we finally meet the aliens it will come down to a fight between our narrative and theirs, until the very end, and to the last breath. That, then, was the story that Sid Meier's Civilization (1991) chose to depict, with its designer having gradually worked up to it with earlier and successively more ambitious efforts such as Sid Meier's Pirates! (1987), Sid Meier's Covert Action (1990) and Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon (1990)—and you best believe that the end result included pirates, spies and railroads, all in the same game. Of course, given the gigantic, almost hubristic scope of the narrative, and the limitations of technology at the time, it would be unrealistic to expect it to be told from the close-up perspective of David Crane's Pitfall!, so a much zoomed-out view was chosen instead, derived from the strategy and tactics games that attracted the kind of megalomaniac brainiacs that Sid Meier and his fans were. And megalomania was necessary here, because it would never have occurred to a humble man to attempt to simulate the entire history of civilization (with the zoomed-out "God's view" of the action being a neat metaphor, by the way, for the philosophical conception of the evolution of civilization and man to the Overman and ultimately the God of gods that causes the Big Crunch and the next cycle of the Eternal Recurrence). There was also no question of this game, and of the genre it would launch, appealing to the average gamer. It was a huge success in the early-'90s because the barriers to entry in the artform were far higher back then, what with computers being expensive and computer games requiring DOS knowledge to install and run, so it captured a relatively high proportion of the playerbase because the playerbase was wealthy, well-educated and high-IQ Western men. With the opening of the floodgates to poorer, lower-IQ populations occasioned by falling hardware costs and graphical user interfaces such as Windows that even monkeys can be trained to use, not to mention standardized consoles that can only be preferred by monkeys, the grand strategy 4X genre that Sid Meier's Civilization created inevitably became more and more marginalized, and today it is patronized by a relatively small but highly intelligent player demographic, indeed without a doubt the highest-IQ players of all. It's also worth noting that the game had regressed, in some respects, compared to earlier milestone games. We've already noted the necessarily zoomed-out view, but just as important was the abandonment of real-time mechanics in favor of a return to the turn-based ones of Will Crowther's Adventure (1976). Though early prototype versions of the game ran in real-time, the developers apparently could not make those mechanics work well enough given their knowledge and resources, so they abandoned them. This is the nature of progress. It doesn't occur linearly, as simple-minded people conceive it, but in a far more complex manner with frequent detours and retrogressions, exactly as Nietzsche describes human and animal evolution in The Will to Power:
Mankind does not advance in a straight line—often a type once attained is lost again (for instance, with all the mighty exertions of the past three hundred years, we have not attained the men of the Renaissance again, and in addition to this we must not forget that the man of the Renaissance was already inferior to the men of classical antiquity).
Game of the 2000s: GRAND THEFT AUTO III
While the grand strategy/4X genre that Sid Meier's Civilization launched continued to be improved and complexified via successive sequels and ultimately Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (1999)—which as of this writing remains the top game in the genre, though I sure as hell hope Romain de Waubert's upcoming Humankind (2020) might finally end its two-decade dominance—the action-adventure genre created by David Crane's Pitfall! was making its own strides on a separate branch of the tree of gaming via efforts that were bolstered by massive gains in hardware power and new techniques in software engineering. The end result of this relentless and rapid evolution was Leslie Benzies' Grand Theft Auto III (2001) which let the player loose in an entire painstakingly simulated city in the midst of a Hollywood-inspired mafia drama. The game exploded onto the scene with such an almighty bang that even non-gamers and random media buffoons took notice, with giant building-sized ads gracing Western capitals from London to Los Angeles and even numerous TV and cinema spots. It was, without a doubt, the Citizen Kane of videogames, which is to say the game that brought together so many previously disparate techniques—real-time action from action games, massive open worlds from CRPGs, deep narrative from adventure games—that it established a format that would come to utterly dominate the artform and continue in all essentials unchanged from that point on, well into succeeding decades.
Game of the 2010s: RUST
By the mid-2010s hardware power and software engineering had reached a point where Sid Meier's Civilization could finally be rendered in real-time and first-person, and Garry Newman's Rust (2013) threw even massively-multiplayer mechanics into the mix for good measure, running the game's island world in servers with up to 500 players with plans still being worked on to chain together many servers into a sprawling archipelago hosting tens of thousands of players—like Jeremy Stieglitz's Atlas (2018) [ > ] would later do, but hopefully not as shittily as Atlas. In Garry Newman's Rust, there are no longer any artificial genre boundaries any more than there are in real life, and the game can be played as an action, adventure, tactics, strategy, exploration, stealth, diplomacy and role-playing, crafting, farming, hunting, trading and shopkeeping or even begging game, or whatever the fuck other kind of experience you want to have in it; or, even better, all of them at the same time, as the best players who belong to the best teams and clans play the game. Of course, Rust doesn't include Sid Meier's Civilization's entire tech tree (though the tree is being expanded constantly, with for example electricity and scuba diving and helicopters added recently, among other things) so you won't be nuking anyone or launching off into space and towards Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri in a space shuttle (though there is a dilapidated launch site in the game, with a non-working shuttle sitting on the launch pad... perhaps waiting to be activated in future updates, which the game still receives religiously every month after all these years). Rust remains one of the perennial Steam best-sellers, always in the top ten most active games on the platform ever since release, despite its old age, quite simply because it is the ultimate multiplayer game and has yet to be topped. Moreover, precisely because it allows everyone to play any role in it, however small and even stupid or even downright wretched—with for example lots of players selling themselves into slavery in the Steam forum in order to acquire the protection of powerful players and clans, and live longer and more interesting lives than they otherwise would, just like in real life—the game attracts all sorts of players, from charismatic and highly intelligent organizers and clan leaders who play at the level of grand strategy, to the aforementioned bottom-feeder teenage slaves who play low-level farming games, and perhaps some day even to domestic pets like cats and dogs, once again just as in real life, with the help of special pet versions of VR headsets and treadmills, as I have explained at length in my essay Why the Highest Artform Attracts the Lowest Lifeforms.
Game of the 2020s: STAR CITIZEN (PROVISIONAL)
And at last... space, the final frontier. It makes sense that the ultimate game would adopt the ultimate theme, which is science fiction, as I have explained in detail in my essay, Why Science Fiction Is The Ultimate Videogame Theme. Though Chris Roberts' Star Citizen (20XX) [ > ] started out as "merely" a space fighting and trading sim of galactic proportions, its unprecedented crowdfunding success—$250 million and counting, for the world's most expensive game, and no doubt soon enough most expensive artwork period—and its creator's boundless ambition have transformed the project into the Borg of videogames, greedily consuming and incorporating every game mechanic ever invented, including therefore the crafting of Garry Newman's Rust but also countless other mechanics as diverse as the class-based tactical shooting of Xavier Marquis's Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege (2015) or the space-station engineering of Marek Rosa's Space Engineers (2013). The result is a game "suffering" from a case of the mother of all feature creeps whose release is being forever pushed back, with detractors even going as far as to accuse the creators of running a scam. As of this writing therefore, this is by far the most promising prospect for game of the 2020s, though I do have a couple of reservations. First off, the world will be persistent—to extreme levels even, with coffee mugs dropped in the middle of forests on random planets remaining there forever for other players to find—which after long experience with domination games I have serious doubts about (and which I will analyze in detail in an upcoming essay). Chris Roberts' Star Citizen though doesn't sound like it will be a pure domination game like Garry Newman's Rust or Vladimir Piskunov's Life is Feudal: MMO (2017), and it's possible that the various quests and missions included in the game and updated on a regular basis will offset the inherent drawbacks in the persistent model that are only now beginning to dawn on me. However that may be, one major drawback that no amount of feature creep and additional development will be able to solve is that Chris Roberts' Star Citizen will not include evolution from cavemen to helicopters and beyond as Garry Newman's Rust did, and of course to a greater extent Sid Meier's Civilization and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. And that is where I plan to enter the field, if need be, and see what I can do to foster progress in it. For that is precisely the design of my ubergame, Alex Kierkegaard's Armageddon, essentially a Rust that starts from cavemen, but on a spherical planet a la Jon Mavor's Planetary Annihilation (2014), and goes all the way to space travel and exoplanets and sci-fi tech a la Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and is only playable on certain hours on weekends to prevent all of the players with no life mindlessly grinding their way to domination, as I have explained at length in my essay Designing An MMORPG That Doesn't Suck, or The True Episodic Gaming. In addition, there would be a true win state, unlike all games in the genre ever, which state would be precisely the attainment of Ultimate Godhood and the precipitation of the Big Crunch which would set in motion the next cycle of the Eternal Recurrence, which in game terms would mean the wipe and the next fresh start. So we see that the ultimate multiplayer game would not perfectly mirror the real universe, because if it did every subsequent session beyond the first would have to be identical with it, which would be boring as fuck. In the real universe it's not boring because by the time of the next cycle the players have been wiped so thoroughly from the face of the universe, and their constituent particles have been scattered so far and wide across it, that they remember nothing of the last cycle, and happily go on to repeat it to all eternity. Obviously that can only work if you have eternity to run the game, which no videogame can have, which is why we observe this large disparity between how the universe works and the rules of optimal game design, as analyzed in detail in my essay, Universal Value Inversion and the Craft of Game Design. Now, obviously, I don't expect to find the resources to develop this game to a Star Citizen level of production values, and probably not even to a Rust level, at least not in the short term; but perhaps a sufficiently convincing prototype can be produced that includes all the main elements in greatly reduced form, such as a mini tech-tree from cavemen to space shuttles, and even a merely two-dimensional representation of a planet. Perhaps even simply turn-based mechanics to start with, to produce a prototype that is at least playable from beginning to end and can therefore convince a larger crowd of people beyond myself and my readers that this is at least a project worth pursuing, if not indeed the very future and ultimate peak of multiplayer gaming, once properly produced and in reasonably finished state. At any rate, that's a project I am thinking of pursuing in the coming decade, once my art theory and philosophy are complete (which should take another year or two max), at which point I am seriously considering devoting the rest of my life to it much in the same way as Tarn Adams has done with his Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress (2006). If anyone reading this has the programming skills to help me get a simple prototype off the ground, drop me a line, and I'll be glad to discuss the project with you at length and see if we can get something started.
Of course, there's still a chance that neither Chris Roberts' Star Citizen nor my own Armageddon will dominate the 2020s, especially if someone makes significant progress towards an immersive single-player Total Recall-like experience. Adam Badowski's upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) [ > ] is currently the most promising candidate in this genre (and note it's also science-fiction-themed...), so if this or some other title along similar lines delivers the goods, it could take the top spot for the decade and lead the artform into a brave new era of high-budget Total Recall-type experiences that sci-fi authors have been dreaming of for decades. And then it would be up to the next decade to investigate to what extent those two genres could be somehow fused—the genres, that is to say, of what I call the Cinematic Videogame which is the ultimate single-player genre, and the Domination game, which is the ultimate multiplayer genre—or if not completely fused at least partially combined. By that point human-level AI will probably have arrived—or at least AI that appears human-level to players who encounter it in the game, which for our purposes amounts to the same thing. This technological advance will transform all facets of society, and therefore also of course videogames, both single-player and multiplayer ones, believe it or not, as I have alluded to in several places in the past, and perhaps most prominently in my essay Why Versus Multiplayer Games Are Worse Games Than JRPGs. And this is where my other recent essay comes in, on The Essence of Multiplayer Gaming, and a few more essays that remain to be written, which I will be writing soon and ending art theory with. And of course after that it will be time to pour thousands of hours into hundreds of promising games spread out over the next two-three decades, and extensively analyze all those games to see what's what and how they hold up to the expectations and ideals and goals that I have outlined in my Master Theory of Art and comprehensive videogame criticism archive. How will all of this turn out? What games will dominate the artform in the coming years and decades, and exactly how and why will they achieve this domination? For the answers to these questions and more like them, and, even better, for personally joining me and my friends on these incredible digital adventures, stay tuned to Insomnia and The Cult, your ultimate sources for all things videogame culture.