• Angry Birds - Rovio Entertainment, 2009
    • Like it or not, Angry Birds was an enormous shift for gaming; it facilitated the boom of bite-size mobile experiences with its intuitive but challenging gameplay in which you use your knowledge of physics to catapult birds at structures in an effort to knock them down. With hundreds of levels available, a steep difficulty curve, and a three-star rating system that encourages you to beat each stage as efficiently as possible, there's a lot to keep you busy. Unfortunately, the value of the Angry Birds brand has long since been in flux due to its numerous sequels and spinoffs, some of which worked—and some didn't. 
  • Assassin's Creed - Ubisoft Montreal, 2007
    • I humbly submit that the three games responsible for the open-world boom of the early 21st century are The Elder Scrolls IV: OblivionGrand Theft Auto IV, and Assassin's Creed. The latter doesn't hold a candle to its masterful counterparts—although the world it builds is beautifully-realized, the first entry in the Assassin's Creed series is awkward and frustrating to play—but its importance is undeniable in that it kickstarted one of the most important franchises in all of gaming and defined the open-world template that Ubisoft would go on to use time and time again across many of their flagship enterprises. For all its flaws, Assassin's Creed is a bold and ambitious game that has a great deal of heart. 
  • Assassin's Creed II - Ubisoft Montreal, 2009
    • If OblivionGTA IVand Assassin's Creed ignited the open-world boom, two other games kept the flames burning: Fallout 3 and Assassin's Creed II. The second entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise, frequently regarded as the best entry (it's not, but to each their own), builds upon the bones of its predecessor to flesh out the open-world tropes that would define gaming for the next decade. Chock-full of things to do, Assassin's Creed II brings the Italian Renaissance to life in high fashion with gorgeous art design and Jesper Kyd's magnificent and evocative score; it may not necessarily be one of the best games of the decade, but it is beyond a doubt one of the most important. 
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum - Rocksteady Studios, 2009
    • Batman: Arkham Asylum was a literal game-changer. Its revolutionary combat system was wildly influential on the games that followed in the years after, and it remains a tight bit of structural work with a polished aesthetic. You play, of course, as Batman, trapped at Arkham Aslyum with the Joker and various other villains over the course of a single night; Rocksteady provides you with a variety of tools with which to take down these villains, including Batarangs, a grappling hook, and "detective vision," which allows you to see through walls and highlight enemies in order to facilitate stealth attacks. Arkham Aslyum is a knockout piece of work, one of the best representations of a superhero in gaming and a franchise debut that knows exactly what it is and how to execute its vision. 
  • BioShock - Irrational Games, 2007
    • I'm much less fond of the original BioShock than most gamers, but its place in the canon is indisputable. The underwater city of Rapture is, bar none, one of the greatest game settings and aesthetics ever developed, and the relationship between the environment and the philosophiesheavily inspired by the Objectivist works of Ayn Randengaged with by the game is a real highlight. It's a shame that the structure of the story is so misjudged and basic gameplay so rough, because BioShock might otherwise have clawed its way into the pantheon of the greatest games of all time (although plenty of people will straight-up tell you that it already is). That said: its importance to gaming as a medium simply cannot be overstatedBioShock is largely responsible for the rise of environmental storytelling, where the world and the narrative are built based on what your character sees and hears in the game rather than through cutscenes. You must, must, must play it. 
  • BioShock 2 - 2K Marin, 2010
    • BioShock 2 gets a bad rap(ture) simply by virtue of being flanked with BioShock and BioShock: Infinite (both of which were developed by Irrational Games with creator Ken Levine leading development, whereas BioShock 2 was handled by 2K Marin), but it's actually my favorite of the three. Not only is the gameplay more polished and better paced than in its predecessor and successor, but it develops the mythology of the first game in a way that feels entirely organic and enriches the world of Rapture in unexpected ways. BioShock 2 is the underdog of the series and probably the least "essential" to play in terms of its importance to gaming culture, but it's also a better game than its adjacent entries. 
  • BioShock: Infinite - Irrational Games, 2013
    • For the first time in the BioShock series, the underwater city of Rapture is abandoned in favor of the floating city of Columbia. Environments are brighter and more colorful, expansive and airy rather than tight and claustrophobic as in the previous entries. The gameplay loop and structural beats remain largely the same as before; it's all to a purpose, however, as Infinite proves to be a sly commentary on the formulaic quality of gamesof all entertainment, reallyas it strives to walk the line between improvement, innovation, and the repetition of what already worked so well. Considering the strength of BioShock in terms of ideas and BioShock 2 in terms of gameplay, it's a testament to the strength of the series that Infinite remains so important to experience in its own right, flaws and all. 
  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons - Starbreeze Studios, 2013
    • This short and simple tale, clearly inspired by Scandinavian mythology, puts you in control of two brothers (say what?) who journey through a fantasy world in order to retrieve a substance which will save their dying father. By controlling one brother (each of whom has slightly different abilities) with each hand, the game challenges you to solve puzzles by thinking laterally in a way that most interactive experiences won't. Although the rich worldbuilding, compelling narrative, and clever level design are all highlights, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons truly earns its place on this list by a moment near the end in which it specifically uses the game mechanics to hit a devastating emotional beat. This wouldn't work as a book, a movie, or a show. Brothers puts the "gaming" in "Gaming Essentials." 
  • Cities: Skylines - Colossal Order, 2015
    • When SimCity, once the benchmark for citybuilding simulations, imploded with its disastrous 2013 entry, gamers were desperate for a return-to-form for the genre. Enter Cities: Skylines, a budget citybuilder that did almost everything better than its long-running franchise counterpart. With a simple, clean interface and intuitive toolsets, Cities: Skylines provides you with almost everything you need to create the city of your dreams. Although it can be difficult to recover when something goes wrong—the game does not always excel at communicating what exactly is happening in your city, why it's affecting you, and how it's affecting you (until it's too late)—I found that I was always excited to begin a new game and try things differently, inching closer and closer to constructing the perfect metropolis. 
  • Civilization IV/V/VI (+all DLC) - Firaxis Games, 2005/2010/2016
    • Civilization is one of the most iconic series in strategy gaming; I'm including the fourth, fifth, and sixth entries together here because their core DNA is identical, and I believe one could argue convincingly for any of them as the most "essential" entry. They are 4X (shorthand for "explore, expand, exploit, exterminate") gaming at its most distilledyour mission is to construct a civilization from the ground up and beat your competitors to pre-established victory conditions on the basis of science, religion, culture, or warfare. The games run on turn-based systems like elaborate chess matches, contributing to the famous "one more turn" mentality that the series is known for; "just one more," you tell yourself, and then it's 4:00AM and you're at war with Gandhi. Civilization IV, V, and VI all have their own tweaks on the formula, and the preferred entry will usually come down to the individual player. What's yours? 
  • Crusader Kings II/Europa Universalis IV (+all DLC) - Paradox Development Studio, 2012/2013
    • If I could only play two games for the rest of my life, Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV would probably be those games—I'm including them together here because they are companion pieces (developer Paradox even went so far as to create a piece of DLC that will carry elements of your CKII experience into EUIV). These games are story generators of the highest order: in Crusader Kings II, you can choose to play as any ruler starting at various points in the Middle Ages and engage with history however you wish from that point forward. Invade your neighbors, assassinate your family, embark on a holy crusade, or simply get married and have the children who you will play as after your current character dies. It's up to you. Crusader Kings II perfectly captures the push-and-pull relationship between power and privilege, interactivity and historicity, challenging you to reconcile what you can change with what you can't. Europa Universalis IV generally follows the same design philosophy, although its scope is significantly larger: rather than dynasties, you play as nations, and the whole world is at stake. Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV are the reason why games exist (although the onslaught of DLC packs, as with every Paradox game, will suck your wallet dry). 
  • Diablo - Blizzard North, 1996
    • I'm going to make a bold claim here: no game ever made has done atmosphere as well Diablo. The grimy aesthetic, the evocative soundtrack—with its deep drums and mournful moaning—all contribute to a sense of place that few games have ever rivaled, let alone matched (the only serious competitor I can think of is the original BioShock). But Diablo is a great game, too. The roots of the modern hack-and-slash genre are all there, and it feels as good today as it did in 1996 to shatter a bony skeleton with a broadsword, strum a rotting zombie full of arrows, or incinerate a fleshy demon with a well-placed wall of bright orange fire. The nihilistic ending to a near-nonexistent narrative is also a plus. 
  • Diablo II (+Lord of Destruction) - Blizzard North, 2000
    • I have a fondness for the original Diablo that even its sequel can't match, but Diablo II is unarguably one of the best games ever made, arguably the best hack-and-slash game ever made, and perhaps the game that I have played more than any other in my life (with the possible exception of Final Fantasy IX). The core gameplay that made its predecessor so addictive (there, I said it) remains largely unchanged, but there's just so much more: more character classes to suit a variety of playstyles, more regions to explore and engage with, and more weapons and armor and skills with which you can tweak and customize your experience. Add in one of the smoothest and most (*sigh*) addictive multiplayer loops ever featured in a game and you've got something special. Diablo II features a narrative which is dull at best, but few games have ever distilled pure fun quite like this one. It's nigh-perfect. 
  • Dishonored - Arkane Studios, 2012
    • Dishonored is a descendant of the early Deus Ex and Thief gamesplus a heavy dose of BioShocka stealth-action hybrid (with just a bit more leniency towards the "action" side of the spectrum than its spiritual predecessors) set in what fans affectionately began calling a "whalepunk" aesthetic (steampunk-adjacent, except whale oil replaces steam as the primary power source). Playing as Corvo, bodyguard to the Empress, you are framed for her murder and witness the kidnapping of her daughter; your mission is to find those responsible and return the heir to safety. With a versatile set of skills and tools at your disposal—some of them supernatural—and a world which adapts to the amount of violence you use, each level becomes an elaborate puzzle that challenges you to think laterally in your attempts to solve it. Combined with a beautiful oil pastel artstyle that brings its unique world to life, Dishonored makes its mark as an intelligent stealth game for the next generation. 
  • Dishonored 2 - Arkane Studios, 2016
    • Picking up fifteen years after the end of the first game, you now have the choice to play as either Corvo or Emily when the Empress' aunt Delilah usurps the throne. Structurally and mechanically, Dishonored 2 delivers largely the same experience as its predecessor—but each level is more dense, more intricate, more imaginative than in the previous entry, and it's for that imagination and creativity that it earns its way onto this list. Highlighting the nine meaty stages are The Clockwork Mansion (a level which allows you to alter its layout and even slip between the cracks in the walls as it is transforming) and the [time travel] (a level which allows you to flip back and forth between different timelines, each of which containing its own challenges). Few games build their worlds with such care and craftsmanship. 
  • Doom - id Software, 1993
    • Although it didn't create the genre, Doom is largely responsible for facilitating the success of the modern first-person shooter—like Super Mario Bros., this is one of those games that you need to play for no other reason than its meteoric impact on design and development. But it also holds up shockingly well, and it's a blast to play due to devious level design and an array of weapons and enemies that are fun to use and fight. Despite a story that is (often literally) bare-bones, Doom is full of gleeful subversion and prescient self-awareness that fucks with your expectations in all the right ways. 
  • Dragon Age: Origins - BioWare, 2009
    • Two years after ushering in a new generation of Western RPGs with Mass Effect, BioWare turned their gaze from science-fiction to fantasy with Dragon Age: Origins. Although the floaty and insubstantial combat lacks the bite that would distinguish successive entries in the series, I'm not sure that BioWare's fine writing has ever been better. The first Dragon Age game is one fantasy trope after another, but the characters are so lovingly developed, so rich with detail and motivation and unexpected nuance that they elevate the story beyond cliché and into something special. 
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (+Tribunal/Bloodmoon) - Bethesda Softworks, 2002
    • Morrowind can be a bit more cumbersome to play than its successors thanks to the technical limitations of the time in which it was developed. That said, it remains one of my favorite open-world RPGs ever made: there's a real sense of heart, a care and craftsmanship in the worldbuilding that few games have matched. You can go where you want, do what you want, and the game always seems to encourage experimentation even as you poke and prod at its seams. The expansions Tribunal and Bloodmoon add dozens of hours on content onto an already meaty experience, and Jeremy Soule's lush score is the icing on the Elder Scrolls cakeas it will continue to be in successive entries. 
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (+Knights of the Nine/Shivering Isles) - Bethesda Game Studios, 2006
    • Oblivion lacks the conviction in worldbuilding that made Morrowind so memorable and the slick(er) UI that makes Skyrim more of a pleasure to play, but there's a reason it ushered Bethesda into the mainstream as a premiere publisher of Western RPGs: it featured a fantasy world more fully-realized than anything else on the market at the time. The art direction and graphical fidelity are miles beyond Morrowind and, I would argue, better than Skyrim. The skill system is intuitive and forgiving, even when the game itself is not (although I feel confident in saying that Oblivion is an overall easier game than either its predecessor or successor). The Elder Scrolls IV was an enormous step forward for open-world games, and it still passes the most important test of allit's a blindingly fun experience.  
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (+Dragonborn/Hearthfire/Dawnguard) - Bethesda Game Studios, 2011
    • Skyrim finally clears up many of the awkward design choices that plagued Morrowind and Oblivion, introducing on-the-spot leveling and quick access to any aspect of the UIalthough combat, while improved, is still as clumsy as it was in the series a decade before. The world of the game is a beautifully-realized landscape of snow and ice and mountains that contrasts sharply with the warm browns and greens and fiery reds of OblivionSkyrim also entered pop culture in a way that the previous Elder Scrolls games did not: "I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an arrow to the knee" became meme material so fast that it reached a critical mass and imploded almost immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, while the gameplay and world design are as good as ever in the series, the core quest narrative is even more dull and uninspired than the usual low-bar Elder Scrolls fare. 
  • Fallout 3 (+Operation: Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken SteelPoint Lookout, Mothership Zeta) - Bethesda Game Studios, 2008
    • After their breakout success on consoles with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda cemented their formula with this revival of the post-apocalyptic Fallout series. Set in the irradiated nuclear wasteland that was formerly Washington, D.C., you'll now be facing off against raiders and Super Mutants rather than the sorcerers and Daedra of Elder Scrollsand instead of swords and spells, you'll be wielding everything from a basic pistol to a mini-nuke launcher. The game is damaged by some awkward environmental designnavigating the ruined capital itself necessitates using the maze-like and unintuitive subway tunnels, which leads to hours and hours of frustrationbut at least a helpful tool called VATS, which allows you to slow down time during battle (a compensation for Bethesda's poor combat system), allows you to enjoy decapitations in blood-soaked slow-motion. So there's that. 
  • Far Cry 3 - Ubisoft Montreal, 2012
    • Far Cry 3 was something of a sleeper hit. Released in the final weeks of 2012—when most critics were already narrowing down their lists for Game of the Year—it surprised audiences with its slick gunplay, hunting/crafting system, devil-may-care attitude, and livewire antagonist Vaas. The game seems at times to be a clumsy satire of Millennials and violence culture reminiscent of Fight Club or Spring Breakers, but it lacks the clarity needed to make an effective point. That said, Far Cry 3 is a blast: traversing a beautiful open world and liberating outposts from gun-toting baddies has rarely been more fun. I'll add in the caveat that Far Cry 4 is a better game than Far Cry 3—largely the same mechanics, but with minor improvements that contribute to a more enjoyable experience—but it did not reinvigorate the franchise or the genre in the way that Far Cry 3 did. Thus, this is the canonical entry. 
  • Final Fantasy VII - Square, 1997
    • The Final Fantasy franchise made the leap to the original PlayStation (from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and polygonal models (rather than sprites) in its seventh, and almost indisputably most famous, entry. Playing as a band of eco-terrorists attempting to bring down the planet-killing Shinra Corporation, you soon find yourself on the trail of villainous ex-SOLDIER Sephiroth; Final Fantasy VII can be occasionally grating in its environmental message, but the characters and gameplay rank among the best in the genre. Magic here comes in the form of "Materia," condensed energy harvested from the planet which you can attach to weapons and apparel for various effectsat a cost. Materia will facilitate your journey to one of the most well-known plot twists in all of gaming and eventually (if you so choose) to memorable optional bosses such as Ruby and Emerald Weapon. JRPGs are at their finest here in Final Fantasy VII, and the expanded universe—which consists of spin-off games and an animated film sequel called Advent Children—cements its legacy.
  • Final Fantasy IX - Square, 2000
    • Final Fantasy IX is my favorite game of all time. Whereas the previous entries in the series were steadily shifting into more technologically-advanced worlds, IX ushered out the original PlayStation by evoking the earlier games in the franchise with a high-fantasy world and colorful, disproportionate aesthetics. The characters are distinctive, memorable, and smartly-written, the narrative is well-paced and rich with meaty themes largely revolving around identity and obligation, and the gameplay itself is easy to learn but bursting with potential that pays off exponentially over the course of the game. There is simply nothing here that doesn't work. Final Fantasy IX is a perfect game from beginning to end. 
  • Final Fantasy XII - Square Enix, 2006
    • Final Fantasy XII is a strange middle child mashed between the beloved Final Fantasy X and the maligned Final Fantasy XIII (XI, as an MMO, was something of an outlier for the series). Despite being well-received, it rarely generates the passionate response or discussion inspired by Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy VIIwhich is a shame, because XII is a phenomenal game. The story itself leaves something to be desired, but the MMO-reminiscent gameplay, with monsters populating the overworld rather than separate encounter screens, is utterly refreshing. But the game's "killer app" (so to speak) is the gambit system, which allows you to customize automated responses from your characters in combat with a few limitations. It's a clever bit of design work that cleans up button-mashing in battles without removing the need for the tactics and strategic decisions that make fighting fun. 
  • Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix Business Division 2, 2016
    • After a ten-year development cycle—one of the most troubled in gaming history; Final Fantasy XV actually began its life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII before morphing into its "final" (eh?) incarnation—the fifteenth entry in the long-running franchise brought back many fans who had abandoned ship following the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. Like it or hate it (it has its problems, and it has its haters), Final Fantasy XV is a wildly ambitious game that isn't afraid to try new things and sometimes fail miserably. From its strangely-structured story, to its Kingdom Hearts-style battle system, to the warm camaraderie between its four male protagonists, it brings to life a vibrant world and breathes renewed energy into an ailing franchise. Unusual, unexpected, and yet totally familiar, this is the Final Fantasy you've always loved and as you've never seen it before. The cutting edge of JRPGs "final"ly returns (and in style). 
  • Firewatch - Campo Santo, 2016
    • Firewatch is a game that doesn't entirely succeed at what it's trying to do, but it has ambition and many appreciable qualities. You play as a character who takes a job watching for forest fires, and your only contact is with your supervisor, Delilah, over the radio; as you explore the area around your post, suspicious activity bubbles up from seemingly every corner, and you delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the forest. Just like in Gone Home, the most obvious point of comparison, the constant bait-and-switching of genre going on in Firewatch escalates almost to the point of narrative whiplash—but its unconventional setting, gorgeous art design, and thematic ambition set it apart. 
  • Flower - Thatgamecompany, 2009
    • You are the petal of a flower, floating on the wind. You pull other petals along with you in a sort of stemless daisy chain. A soft piano soundtrack plays in the background. And...that's about it. Flower is the stereotypical "indie game," and that's not a bad thing: it's short, it's relaxing, and there is a slight narrative that will lend you a feeling of accomplishment when you bring it to completion. I'm including it here as an important stepping stone for the advancement of art and aesthetics in gaming culture. 
  • God of War - SCE Santa Monica Studio, 2005
    • In light of its many sequels, it's easy to forget what an unexpected delight the original God of War was. Chronicling the story of Greek warrior Kratos as he rips and rends his way to vengeance against the god Ares, who deceived him into slaughtering his family, you get to make use of the distinctive Blades of Chaos: cleavers on the ends of long chains, which allow for a variety of stylish and gory attacks. You will murder your way through the pantheon of Greek mythology, fighting satyrs, sirens, gorgons, minotaurs, and a host of other grotesque creatures alongside three memorable bosses. It's not exactly the smartest game on the market, but it's adrenaline-fueled fun of the highest order. 
  • God of War II - SCE Santa Monica Studio, 2007
    • God of War II was one of the PlayStation 2's last great games, and what a game it was. There isn't much to distinguish it mechanically from the first installmentmurdering the entirety of Greek mythology is still the name of the gamebut everything is amplified exponentially. Bosses are bigger and badder, puzzles more intricate, and the overall scope even more expansive than before. This time, after being betrayed by Zeus, you will embark on a mission to find the Sisters of Fate in order to turn back time and have your vengeance. Jaw-dropping setpieces abound as you battle the animated Colossus of Rhodes, famous Greek heroes such as Theseus and Perseus, and the Fates themselves.
  • God of War III - SCE Santa Monica Studio, 2010
    •  Is it as good as God of War II? No. But God of War III is viscera-soaked insanity on an unprecedented scale and a marvel of technology-pushing production value that was stunning in its original PlayStation 3 release. Picking up moments after God of War II ended, the third installment in the core series sees Kratos launch an assault on Olympus itself, intent on destroying the remainder of the Greek pantheon. Like its predecessor, God of War III is more about amplification than redefinition: bigger, bigger, bigger, as you face off against Poseidon, Hades, Hercules, and Zeus himself (amongst others). The game struggles in its attempts to land a satisfying conclusion for the Kratos arc, but you'll probably be too busy washing off gallons and gallons of godly blood to notice. Probably. 
  • Gone Home - Fullbright, 2013
    • The so-called "walking simulator" genre—games in which you do little more than explore an environment, usually uncovering clues which reveal a story—and arguably an entire wave of indie gaming owes its existence to Gone Home. The roughly 90-120 minute experience revolves around a woman who returns home from a trip to Europe to find her family gone and her house abandoned; you must comb through objects and documents in the building in order to discover where your parents and sibling went. Part of the appeal of Gone Home is genre-teasing: until the end of the game, you're never quite sure what kind of story it's going to tell. Horror? Coming-of-age tale? Family drama? The genre bait-and-switching occasionally comes across as cheap or dishonest, but it's an effective tool that lures you along and ultimately makes the ending an exceptionally powerful piece of work. 
  • Grand Theft Auto III - DMA Design, 2001
    • Grand Theft Auto III literally reconstructed the landscape of video games: it made open worlds mainstream. You can beat pedestrians up with baseball bats and blow up cars with tanks, although the fun is somewhat dampened by cumbersome controls. But unlike later entries in the series, Grand Theft Auto III actually handles its satire wellit's pointed, effective, and legitimately funny. Cruising around Liberty City while listening to the hilarious and entertaining "Head Radio" remains one of my favorite gaming memories. There's no question that this is a hard game to go back to; it's visually and mechanically crude, and that takes some getting used to, but it's still pretty damn charming and pretty damn fun. Grand Theft Auto III is a game that, despite its age, is still very much worth playing. 
  • Grand Theft Auto IV - Rockstar North, 2008
    • Grand Theft Auto IV remains my favorite entry in the series. The satire largely avoids the realm of self-parody (although it is not as strong as in GTA III), and the gameplay feels fresh and modern and fun. The real highlight, though, is GTA IV's grey-brown color palette and oily aesthetic. It beautifully complements the grimy story of immigrant Niko Bellic and his rise to power in America, a narrative high point for the series. The organic feel of all the content outside the core game—dating, drinking, darts, bowling, and host of other extraneous activities—is just icing on an already extraordinary cake. 
  • Grand Theft Auto V - Rockstar North, 2013
    • Grand Theft Auto V is a game I admire more than I actually like. The satire is so bland and on-the-nose that it entirely loses its edge, and the narrativenow torn between three characters, none of whom are particularly interestingis bloated and unengaging. But Los Santos is a remarkable open world, jam-packed with secrets and things to do, and the moment-to-moment gameplay handles more smoothly than any previous entry in the series. It's damn close to everything that a game of this nature should be, featuring car chases, gunfights, explosions, and elaborate heists if you progress through the enormous campaign (which runs a whopping 70+ missions). And if that's not your thing, it's still a lot of fun to cruise around with the radio on, occasionally hopping out to toss grenades into oncoming traffic.
  • Hearthstone: Heroes of WarCraft - Blizzard Entertainment, 2014
    • Hearthstone: Heroes of WarCraft is the digital card game for people who don't like digital card games. I had zero interest in playing it before it came out, but I decided to try it out based on my love of WarCraft and utter faith in Blizzardit certainly didn't hurt that the core game is entirely free, with new card packs and expansions available through earned in-game currency (real-world currency is certainly more convenient, but it's not an impossible throttle like other free-to-play games). What a pleasant surprise! Hearthstone is absolute blast even if you're not good at it (like me): the wide variety of cards open up virtually-infinite permutations of strategy, challenging you to think fast, long-term, and outside-the-box, and Blizzard's colorful pop-art style and carefully-crafted animations and sounds make the game a visual and audio treat even beyond the maddeningly-fun gameplay. Outside of the standard one-on-one matches with other players, single-player campaigns and the "Arena" mode are available to spice things up. Heathstone is low-commitment gaming at its best, as only Blizzard knows how to do. 
  • Heavy Rain - Quantic Dream, 2010
    • I'll be the first to admit that Heavy Rain is plagued with problems, most of them technical. But it's an experience unlike anything else I've ever played, an interactive story that implements "fail-forward" (i.e., failing a task does not stop the game, it merely adjusts to compensate for your actions) design so eloquently that your variation of the narrative feels like it was meant to be all along. You play as four characters caught up in the web of the so-called "Origami Killer," and your actions will determine who lives, who dies, and the fate of the killer. It's a riveting game that overcomes a host of design problems through the strength of pure storytelling power, and that's something to be celebrated in this medium. 
  • Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice - Ninja Theory, 2017
    • ore than any other artistic medium, games are equipped to deal with mental illness; interaction is able to bring out guilt, paranoia, and obsession in the player, feelings and mindsets which cannot be evoked fully or sometimes at all by books or shows or movies. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of gaming’s first high-profile attempts to wrestle with mental illness. You play as Senua, a warrior who intends to rescue her dead lover by venturing into the Helheim, the underworld of Norse mythology. Along the way, Senua is plagued by voices which will affect your gameplay experience—they will warn you when enemies are approaching, comment on your performance in battle, occasionally even lie to you. Although Hellblade’s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, its extraordinary visual and auditory design and willingness to mess with player perception make it a remarkable achievement. We’ve all encountered unreliable narrators, but Hellblade attempts something more ambitious and more interesting: unreliable interactivity.
  • Infinity Blade - Chair Entertainment and Epic Games, 2010
    • When it comes to the rise of mobile gaming, the importance of Infinity Blade is surpassed only by Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds. Combining the intuitive-but-nuanced touch-and-swipe gameplay of Fruit Ninja with basic RPG elements and, most importantly, revolutionary graphics (made with Unreal Engine 3) for mobile devices, Infinity Blade blurred the line between console and on-the-go gaming. Resetting game cycles provide you with an infinite series of enemies to face off against, so you get significant bang for your buck as you master your combat skills. Infinity Blade changed everything. 
  • Inside - Playdead, 2016
    • Inside is the best puzzle-platformer ever made. Period. Six years in the making, Playdead's follow-up to their critical indie darling Limbo polishes and perfects the mechanics of its predecessor as it chronicles the dialogue-free story of a boy journeying through a dystopian world where mind control is rampant. Not one frame of animation is out of place, and the roughly four-hour adventure culminates in one of the most thematically-crunchy endings ever featured in a video game. You'll probably spend more time reading fan theories about What It All Means than you did playing the game, and that's not a bad thing. 
  • Journey - Thatgamecompany, 2012
    • Standing atop predecessors such as Shadow of the Colossus and Thatgamecompany's own FlowerJourney is stationed on the front lines of the "video games as art" debate. It's a wordless, two-hour, um...journey...that propels you along with riveting Christian symbolism, outstanding art direction, seamless multiplayer, and a magnificent score from composer Austin Wintory. Journey isn't a game you'll be coming back to for hours of fun, but it's an experience that will never, ever leave you. 
  • Kingdom Hearts - Square, 2002
    • The premise of Kingdom Hearts is borderline insane: it's an action-RPG mashup featuring worlds and characters from Disney and Final Fantasy. That's right. Fan favorites such as Cloud, Aerith, and Sephiroth are waltzing around in the same locations as Donald, Goofy, and a host of other Disney staples. The game is beginning to show its age with claustrophobic environments, a finicky camera, and cumbersome combat controls, but the soft-pop artstyle and delightful characters are as memorable as ever. As an added bonus, the narrative is mercifully coherent—a quality that the series will lose faster than you can say "Gummi Ship." Kingdom Hearts, while textually kid-friendly, can be hard as nails on its higher difficulties and provides plenty of material to occupy experienced gamers. 
  • The Last of Us (+Left Behind) - Naughty Dog, 2013
    • After releasing three Uncharted games in the space of four yearsNaughty Dog sent off the PlayStation 3 with their flawed masterpiece The Last of Us. Taking place in a variation of the zombie apocalypsethe infection here, rather than a virus, is a mind-controlling fungus reminiscent of Ophiocordyceps unilateralisthe story follows weathered survivor Joel and a young girl named Ellie, who is immune to the infection, as they travel across the United States. Like many of Naughty Dog's other games, The Last of Us suffers from bloat and some awkward pacing, but it's a challenging commentary on the glamorization of love and "default" heroism in entertainment, capped off by an extraordinary ending.  
  • Life is Strange - Dontnod Entertainment, 2015
    • Remember Me developer Dontnod Entertainment takes the episodic, dialogue-heavy style of game implemented so successfully by Telltale and works wonders in Life in Strange. You play as Max, a young woman who discovers that she can rewind time while going to school in the Pacific Northwest; what follows is a moving meditation on bullying, disability, mental illness, sexuality, and suicide (amongst a host of other subjects) as you obsessively rethink and recreate your actions in an effort to achieve the best possible outcome. If there was ever any doubt that video games were capable of telling great stories, Life is Strange dispels those doubts—it was the first game to make me cry. 
  • Limbo - Playdead, 2010
    • Playdead's Limbo, along with games such as BraidFez, and Super Meat Boy, was instrumental in the rise of indie gaming. Featuring an evocative black-and-white artstyle, haunting visual and audio aesthetics, and extremely polished puzzle-platforming, your dialogue-free journey will take you through a purgatorial world in search of your sister. Although Limbo's difficulty curve is not handled as deftly as in Playdead's follow-up, Inside (a masterpiece), and although its narrative is not as thematically engaging, it's an exquisitely-crafted piece of work that proves the power of independent gaming. 
  • Mass Effect - BioWare, Edge of Reality,  and Demiurge Studios, 2007
    • Gameplay-wise, Mass Effect is not a pleasant experience. Environments are dull and repetitive, combat is clumsy, and even basic traversal is a chore. But the storytelling is strongperhaps the best BioWare has ever done. Set in a future where humanity has discovered alien technology called "mass relays," transport systems which allow travel across the galaxy, you play as Commander Shepard as s/he (Jennifer Hale's exceptional voicework as FemShep is a series highlight) unravels a mystery revolving around beings known as Reapers. It's a compelling narrative in its own right and a beautiful setup for Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. The Mass Effect trilogy is a singular story than spans three games, so your character and choices will carry over into the sequels (if you so choose); the first game may not be as fun to play as its successors, but it will make the payoff in Mass Effect 3 that much sweeter. 
  • Mass Effect 2 - BioWare, 2010
    • Mass Effect 2 storms onto the scene with swaggering confidence, carrying over the strong storytelling of the first game while exponentially improving the moment-to-moment gameplayin fact, I would say it's the biggest leap in quality I've ever seen a series make between consecutive entries. The core narrative does suffer some pacing issues as it lacks the meaty content of Mass Effect or Mass Effect 3, but the bombastic final sequence is a domino effect of memorable character moments that play out differently depending on your choices. Mass Effect 2 stands tall as a high-water mark of Western RPGs.
  • Mass Effect 3 - BioWare, 2012
    • Mass Effect 3 is notorious for the backlash against its ending, which was maligned thanks to unrealistic expectations and is altogether much better than a very vocal segment of the gaming community would have you believe (especially if you subscribe to the "indoctrination theory"; I usually don't give much credit to fan theories due to the degree with which they extrapolate unreasonably from the text, but the indoctrination theory is built on strong textual evidenceread about it when you finish the game). But with or without the ending in consideration, Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic experience: the gameplay is better than ever before in the series, and the narrative is so propulsive that it becomes easy to brush by much of the high-quality side content. It's an exceptional ending to an exceptional trilogy. 
  • Metal Gear Solid - Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, 1998
    • Even decades after its release, Metal Gear Solid still feels unlike anything else on the market. Game director Hideo Kojima, who became one of the most recognizable names in the industry thanks to the Metal Gear franchise, simply does not adhere to conventional game design; there's an attention to detail here that frequently breaks the common language of interactive entertainment. For example: a sequence early in the game requires you to navigate a room latticed by invisible lasers which will alert enemies to your presence if touched. Did you acquire the thermal goggles that allow you to see the lasers? No? Well, you can light up a cigarettethe smoke will reveal the beams, but your health will decrease so long as you continue to engage in the unhealthy behavior. Metal Gear Solid is saturated in quirks like this, many of which contribute to one of the greatest boss fight lineups a game has ever featured. It's not a perfect game, but it's bold and fresh and original—an unforgettable experience. 
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty - Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, 2001
    • If you've played Metal Gear Solid, you know what you're getting into with Sons of Liberty. It's another Metal Gear game. Except, well...it's not. Although it features memorable bosses, a convoluted pseudo-philosophical story, and a seemingly-endless series of design oddities, shake-ups in environment and characters lend it an entirely new flavor. The cold Alaskan base that distinguished the previous game is abandoned in favor of a structure called "Big Shell" out in the open ocean, and the thematic concerns of genetics and identity give way to struggles with simulations and hero worship. Your adversaries this time, instead of FOXHOUND, are members of an organization known as "Dead Cell." I don't want to say too much more given that spiraling down the narrative rabbit-hole is one the many delights of the game, but suffice to say that Sons of Liberty lives up to the standard of the Metal Gear franchise. 
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, 2004
    • Snake Eater takes you back decades before the events of Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Libertyback to the time of Big Boss, from whom Solid Snake was clonedin a story clearly inspired by James Bond and early Cold War espionage. The Metal Gear staples that you have come to know and love are all here, including a mewling Liquid Ocelot (because, you know...because) and two boss fights which jostle for position with Psycho Mantis in the pantheon of all-time greats. The game design here smartly stays in line with the technology of the time, removing the convenient HUD radar and forcing you to rely on other methods to navigate the battlefield. Also new is the expansive forest environment: rather than confining you to an enemy base as in the previous games, Snake Eater sets you loose in wooded areas to crawl through the underbrush as you sneak around and behind armed guards. You guessed it—this means that the title is literal as well as metaphorical. Have fun killing and eating snakes! 
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots - Kojima Productions, 2008
    • Kojima throws everything (and the kitchen sink) at the wall in this bombastic conclusion to the Metal Gear saga. Whereas the previous games in the series were largely confined to a single location (Snake Eater technically wasn't, of course, but its environment was consistent even across different areas), Guns of the Patriots will send you all over the world in stealth missions, explosive chases, and cutscenes which are legitimately as long as feature-length films. It's batshit insanity, and somehow it all works. Gameplay is also more fluid and flexible than ever, which means you can engage with the game on your own terms more than you could beforeif prefer third-person shooting to stealth, you can play the game as a third-person shooter. And if stealth is your thing, it's slicker than ever before. Metal Gear Solid 4 isn't without its flaws, but it's the culmination of a decade of unconventional design that climaxes in an interactive experience unlike anything seen before in gaming. What a conclusion! 
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor - Monolith Productions, 2014
    • Three words: the Nemesis System. In almost every other respect, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a generic open-world game (the obvious Assassin's Creed influence is almost suffocating), but the implementation of the Nemesis System is quite unlike anything before in gaming history. As you wreak havoc on orcs living in the, ahem, shadow of Mordor, they will remember their battles with you, retain their injuries, and move up the orcish hierarchy if they best you (meaning a tougher opponent the next time you face off). Gimmicky as it may be, it's a magical system that brings life and personality to its world. This is to say nothing of the fluid, intuitive combat (ripped straight from the Arkham Asylum playbook), which is such a blast that it more than makes up for the dull narrative beats. 
  • Minecraft - Mojang, 2011
    • One of the grandest phenomenons in gaming history, Minecraft is a survival/crafting simulation in which you can create virtually anything you desire (players have constructed everything from full-scale fictional cities—Minas Tirith, King's Landing—to functioning computers within the game world). Or, if freeform creation isn't your thing, "Survival Mode" challenges you to mine for resources and use their physical properties to construct the weapons and armor and shelter you need in order to endure attacks from the monsters that come out at night. If you're more interested in a versatile sandbox that facilitates creativity than objective-based gameplay, you can hardly do better than Minecraft
  • Planet Coaster - Frontier Developments, 2016
    • Planet Coaster is the ultimate fulfillment of what the original Roller Coaster Tycoon promised to do nearly two decades prior: a meticulously-crafted, (almost) infinitely-customizable theme park sim that finally cleans up all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that occasionally made the former series frustrating to play (Frontier Games was, in fact, the developer of Roller Coaster Tycoon 3; not a bad game by any means, but they clearly learned from the mistakes they made). Soaked through with loving detail, Planet Coaster represents a genre coming into its own and an opportunity to create, with more flexibility than ever, the amusement park of your dreams. Don't miss this gem of design. 
  • Plants vs. Zombies - PopCap Games, 2009
    • Plants vs. Zombies was the "two" in a one-two punch that facilitated the mobile gaming boom of the early 2010s (the "one" was Angry Birds), and that's hardly a surprise: PopCap has a true talent for creating simple, bubbly, addictive games that are perfectly suited for mobile platforms (see: BejeweledPeggle). PvZ takes the intensive strategy of a tower defense game and morphs it into something that almost resembles wave-based chess as you use your various plants to defend your garden from zombies; it was so influential that it even became a quest in World of WarCraft
  • Portal - Valve Corporation, 2007
    • Portal became a surprise hit after its inclusion in Valve's The Orange Box along with Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. Featuring devious puzzles and sharp-witted writing, it's a clever experiment in gaming that sets the stage for its (superior) sequel—although, unlike Portal 2, it doesn't overstay its welcome and wraps things up in less than half the time. Portal is hardly the best game ever made, not even the best in its genre, but it is not a stretch to say that it was one of the key facilitators in the rise of indie games during the late aughts and has unequivocally earned its place in the gaming canon.
  • Portal 2 - Valve Corporation, 2011
    • Portal 2 has a reputation as the best puzzle game ever made—the best game ever made, period, to some—and that may or may not be true. The puzzles are indeed impeccably designed. But Portal 2, like its predecessor, truly shines in its writing as it builds upon the mythology of the first game and continues to straddle the line between humor and nihilism to genuinely brilliant effect. Portal 2 is also a surprisingly sly and surprisingly strong commentary on gender in gaming, featuring a female player-character, sexually-evocative imagery, and on-the-nose names like "Cave Johnson." CAVE JOHNSON. This is satire at its best: smart, sophisticated, effective, but never overbearing in the point it is making. 
  • Red Dead Redemption - Rockstar San Diego, 2010
    • Tucked between the releases of behemoths Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V is Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's successor to Red Dead Revolver. Although the core gameplay has much in common with the company's landmark series, its setting—southwest America in the early 1900s—lends it an entirely different flavor. Grand Theft Auto has always been about crawling up from the dirt in a twisted distortion of the American Dream; John Marston's tale in Red Dead, however, is one of decline, of frontiersmen and outlaws being washed away in a rush of civilization. At least there's plenty of fun to be had along the way: horses to tame, wildlife to hunt, bounties to capture, and much more as you carve a path of blood through the Wild West, all set to a sunset-and-tumbleweed soundtrack that will make you feel lonely in the best way possible. This is the Deadwood of gaming, and it's worth a visit. 
  • Roller Coaster Tycoon (+Corkscrew Follies/Loopy Landscapes) - Chris Sawyer Productions, 1999
    • I'm not sure if there has ever been a game with better sound design than Roller Coaster Tycoon. The clink of cash registers, the roar of roller coasters, the gurgle of parkgoers vomiting all over your meticulously-placed pathways—they bring the world to life with crystalline vividness. But the rest of the game is hardly lacking: visuals are crisp with detail, and the sheer amount of content (nearly one hundred scenarios between the base game and expansions) will keep you entertained for a long, long time. Roller Coaster Tycoon isn't without its frustrating quirks—many of which were improved or fixed by later games in the series—but it got so much right that it reigned supreme over the genre of amusement park simulators (a niche genre, admittedly) for years. ...You can also drown parkgoers. 
  • Shadow of the Colossus - Team Ico, 2005
    • There's nothing quite like Shadow of the Colossus. The experience consists almost entirely of the player, in the form of a mysterious protagonist known only as "Wander," seeking out and killing sixteen gargantuan creatures which inhabit an otherwise empty world. It doesn't sound like one of the best games ever made. But the minimalism, the mournfulness, the use of wits and weapons that you will need to bring down your adversariesall punctuated by a supremely powerful ending in which the purpose of your actions is made clearcontribute to an experience that defies conventional gaming and makes a mark entirely its own. Shadow of the Colossus isn't just good or great, it's near-perfect. 
  • StarCraft (+Brood War) - Blizzard Entertainment, 1998
    • The original StarCraft still reigns as the best RTS game ever made, rivaled only by Blizzard's own WarCraft III four years later. Although StarCraft II abruptly took the franchise into the realm of the fantastical and sapped it of its storytelling strength, its predecessor is anchored firmly in science fiction: inspired by works such as Alien and Blade Runner, it has a real sense of boots-on-the-ground grit that is only enhanced by its jagged 90s aesthetic. Between the near-flawless mission design and the organic difficulty curve, it's easy to forget that StarCraft also contains one of the most chilling narrative beats in the history of strategy gaming. This is a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word. 
  • StarCraft II (Wings of Liberty/Heart of the Swarm/Legacy of the Void) - Blizzard Entertainment, 2010-2015
    • StarCraft II reignited the competitive real-time strategy scene when it was finally released (in three parts) more than ten years after the original. The level design across its three meaty campaigns may not be as tight and polished as in its predecessor, but what it lacks in perfection it makes up for in variety and ambition. Where StarCraft II fails is in its story, abandoning its grimy sci-fi roots in favor of a bombastic fantasy tale that is infinitely less interesting—switching genres is not inherently disastrous, of course, but the writers in this case are not able to pull it off. For all its flaws, though, StarCraft II is a bold, sprawling, and baffling work that, for better or worse, redefined RTS gaming for a new decade. 
  • Stardew Valley - ConcernedApe, 2016
    • Stardew Valley came out of nowhere. Inspired by games such as Harvest Moon and developed by a single person, this farming/relationship simulator was released in early 2016 to critical acclaim and commercial success. It deserved both. Combining the addictive "one more turn" mentality of Civilization with the relationship-building system of a BioWare title, Stardew Valley transforms mundane acts such as fishing, watering crops, and checking your mail into charming endeavors that will bring a smile to your face. But the real highlight is the writing—I found myself truly caring about the characters in the game and reacting to what they did with genuine emotion. That's something special. 
  • Super Mario Bros. - Nintendo R&D4, 1985
    • I don't think it's unreasonable to say that Super Mario Bros. is the single most important game ever made. The iconic World 1-1 is renowned as a masterpiece of level design for good reason, and it's difficult to overstate the precision of the controls that make the game such a buttery-smooth pleasure to play. There are a few odd elements that don't entirely work—the stages which repeat indefinitely until you navigate them according to a certain pattern—but Super Mario Bros. as a whole still holds up as one of the most meticulously-crafted and purely fun platformers ever created. A must-play. 
  • Super Mario Bros. 3 - Nintendo R&D4, 1988
    • Super Mario Bros. 3 feels, in many ways, like a rough draft of its superior successor (Super Mario World), but I couldn't in good conscience leave what is considered to be the best games ever made off this list. SMB3 significantly expanded the breadth of the series with a set of exquisitely-designed levels that are chock-full of visuals and mechanics which would carry on through subsequent entries. Although it lacks the novelty of Super Mario Bros. and the polish of Super Mario World, there are few games more essential than Super Mario Bros. 3. Watch out for the unreasonably angry sun. 
  • Super Mario World - Nintendo EAD, 1990
    • Super Mario World is the only game I ever skipped school to play. Not only does it feature some of the best 2D platforming ever created, but it is so stuffed with secrets that unearthing them all becomes a game unto itself. Super Mario World doles out a host of mechanics—including the first appearance of the adorable dinosaur Yoshi and his delightful tongue—that encourage you to poke and prod at where you would expect the seams of the game to be, only to discover hidden treasures and worlds that open up entirely new challenges. This is a perfect game, a high-water mark in a franchise that has frequently been genre-best, and it has lost none of its luster since its release all the way back in 1990. 
  • Tetris - List, 1984
    • If Super Mario Brosis the Bible of gaming (it is), Tetris is...The Epic of Gilgamesh? Let's go with that. It's a puzzle game so simple and so pure that it remains a staple of intuitive design and clean entertainment to this day. All you have to do is rotate falling blocks of various shapes in order to fit them together when they land at the bottom of the screen; keep it up until you run out of space and get the highest score you can. Add in some of the most memorable music in all of gaming and you have a perfect interactive experience that rightly deserves its place as a longtime bestseller. 
  • Tomb Raider - Crystal Dynamics, 2013
    • Six years after Uncharted: Drake's Fortune brought 3D action-platformers back into the zeitgeist, along comes the Tomb Raider reboot from Crystal Dynamics; it's a violent, visceral experience, the hard-R equivalent to Uncharted's PG-13. Lara Croft is young and inexperienced in this entry of the iconic series, but she matures quickly after becoming shipwrecked on an island populated by a cult intent on burning one of her friends alive as a sacrifice to an ancient goddess. With a pickax, bow, handgun, assault rifle, and shotgun at your disposal, you can carve a bloody path through the lean campaign to rescue your friend—or meander along the way, finding collectibles and solving puzzles in optional tombs. Tomb Raider is a slick, bloody ride that compensates for a silly narrative and unmemorable characters with brutal action and kinetic setpieces that (thankfully) don't overstay their welcome. 
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - Naughty Dog, 2007
    • If you've ever wanted to play an interactive Indiana Jones film, here's your chance. The first game in the Uncharted series chronicles the adventures of explorer/thief/mass murderer Nathan Drake as he pursues the treasure of his namesake, Sir Francis Drake. The place of Drake's Fortune in the canon is shaky at best: it's a fine action-adventure story and a competent third-person shooter, but there's absolutely nothing here that won't be done and won't be done better by its superior sequels. I am including it here because the Uncharted series is cumulative. Each game largely stands on its own, but they build upon each other; A Thief's End is the pinnacle of the series and an exercise in game design that puts its predecessors to shame, but its emotional weight is dependent upon the player having spent 40+ hours with these characters across the three previous games. So while Drake's Fortune may not make it into the canon on its own merits, its inclusion is necessary as part of a greater whole. 
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - Naughty Dog, 2009
    • Commonly considered one of the greatest action-adventure games ever made and the high point of the Uncharted series (it was, until A Thief's End took the throne), Among Thieves is simply stellar. Featuring a stunning sequence of action setpieces that showcase Naughty Dog's mastery of level design, Nate's adventures in this second installment follow him deep into the mountains of Tibet in search of Shangri-La. Unfortunately, awkward platforming, a sluggish third act, and a monstrously stupid final boss taint the overall experience and keep it just outside the gaming pantheon. 
  • Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Naughty Dog, 2011
    • Drake's Deception hasn't aged well in the public eye—and fair enough, it's not the place to look for great storytelling. But nor are Drake's Fortune or Among ThievesUncharted 3, like its predecessors, shines in its jaw-dropping setpieces; Naughty Dog arguably goes overboard with kinetic level design in this entry—swaying ships, gunfights on shaking ground, drug-distorted visions and geometry turned vertical, sideways, upside down—but there's something charming about a talented developer showing off their technical prowess without anything resembling restraint. Nathan Drake's adventure this time around, a journey in pursuit of a fabled lost city in the Arabian desert Rub' al Khali, is often unbearably stupid. And yet, somehow, it works: it's confident, explosive, swaggering. Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it's schlock storytelling executed by master craftsmen, and it gets away with it. 
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Naughty Dog, 2016
    • This is what Uncharted was always meant to be. Naughty Dog's skill as a developer—even though it was never lacking—finally matches their ambitions in the fourth entry of their iconic series, and they bring to bear some of the most astounding art direction and level design ever seen on a PlayStation console at the time of release. Even more astounding is Uncharted 4's attention to contemplative storytelling; whereas the first three games in the series were ever-escalating bombast, A Thief's End wisely chooses to step back and embrace a quieter narrative with softer edges and more nuanced relationships. (That said, its action sequences hold their own against a series outdone only by God of War in balls-to-the-wall setpieces.) Phenomenal performances from the entire cast, top-of-the-line motion capture, and new-to-the-series composer Henry Jackman bring the entire package to life.
  • The Walking Dead: Season One - Telltale Games, 2012
    • The Wolf Among UsTales from the BorderlandsGame of ThronesBatman. The reign of Telltale's point-and-click episodic games began with season one of The Walking Dead, a compelling five-part series that will force you to make hard choices as you struggle to survive in the zombie apocalypse. At the heart of the (tell)tale is the relationship between Lee, your player-character, and a young girl named Clementine; it's one of the most memorable dynamics in gaming. Unfortunately, Telltale's rickety game engine means you'll likely be running into a host of technical issues that break the immersion on a regular basis. But the writing is what matters in The Walking Dead: Season One, and it gets it right. 
  • WarCraft III (+The Frozen Throne) - Blizzard Entertainment, 2002
    • On the eve of World of WarCraft and the new era of gaming it would usher in, Blizzard closed out a decade of RTS with WarCraft III and its expansion, The Frozen Throne. Featuring five playable races across seven meaty campaigns and a host of additional content—robust multiplayer, a scenario editor, an extra difficulty level, and a bonus campaign that serves as something of a precursor to WoWWarCraft III is finely-tuned strategy clockwork with a vibrant aesthetic and varied mission design that showcases Blizzard at the height of their power. Games rarely get better than this, and it holds up. 
  • What Remains of Edith Finch - Giant Sparrow, 2017
    • From the creators of The Unfinished Swan comes this crisp, surreal, two-hour adventure that feels like a more whimsical and darkly humorous companion to Gone Home (A Series of Unfortunate Events will get you on the right track in terms of tone). Giant Sparrow implements a variety of visual styles and gameplay mechanics to tell the story of the Finch family and their increasingly-unfortunate and untimely deaths, which culminates in a surprisingly poignant ending. What Remains of Edith Finch is a thrilling remainder of the emotions that can evoked when interactivity meets storytelling. 
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within - Firaxis, 2012/2013
    • Three years after Demon's Souls, veteran strategy-game developer Firaxis' (known for their work on the acclaimed Civilization series) revival of the classic X-COM franchise was the second half of a one-two punch that created a renaissance of punishingly-difficult games hearkening back to the 80s and 90s. You will lead squads of soldiers into turn-based battles against alien adversaries, and the fight won't be easy—you will almost always be outnumbered and outgunned, and every move is a literal gamble that's rarely in your favor. But the struggle will make your eventual victory that much sweeter.