Portal 2 (2011)
The Portal games are so short that you really can’t play Portal 2 without playing the first one, which was a sleeper hit run by a small development team. Portal 2, however, is a full-blown blockbuster, expanding on the original’s puzzle-based gameplay as well as the lore.
On the other hand, none of the characters are role models, and I’m not sure what to think of the antagonistic A.I.’s godlike role in the science facility in which it resides, though certain plot developments prevent this conceit from coming off as anti-theistic. Besides, it’s all wrapped up in a dark, tongue-in-cheek wit that satirizes nature-twisting experimentation, especially when the ever-priceless J.K. Simmons is introduced. Oh, and the ultimate boss takedown is one of the most unexpectedly epic in gaming history. As sheer entertainment, both hilarious and brain-teasing, Portal 2 takes the cake (pun intended).
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Four years prior to Shadow‘s release, Shadow‘s developers shook the game industry by introducing an emotionally-driven minimalism with Ico. While Ico is a mechanically barebones platformer, Shadow is a deconstruction of the action/adventure genre. We as the young Wander are given a whole landscape to traverse with practically no side quests; the only levels are the sixteen colossi we’re sent to destroy as part of a deal with a dark entity in order to have our sacrificed lover resurrected.
It’s a complex dilemma. Should Wander have brought justice to those who committed injustice or taken the chance to reverse the injustice? Since he chooses the latter, the tale is ultimately about the consequences of doing the wrong thing even for love’s sake. For the ways it haunts us in both unsettling and invigorating ways, Shadow of the Colossus is plain transcendent.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Until Breath of the Wild‘s release, Ocarina of Time had no equal when it came to overall critical success. Ocarina introduced an unprecedented combination of storytelling and exploration at release, forever changing the game industry just as the NES original did.
This game makes me feel like a kid again more than anything else can, and not just because of nostalgia but also because of the innocent, childlike approach to its storytelling…for the most part. Its polytheistic, partly monistic mythology may not agree with Christianity, but the hero we play as does represent the choice to trustfully follow God whereas the villain represents the Nietzschean desire to become God.
While characterization is largely barebones, if with some very funny moments, the moments the game sears into our memories are moments like us solving head-scratching puzzles, defeating childhood-scarring monsters, discovering gold skulltulas, helping out random villagers, unlocking the Door of Time, facing Ganondorf in his castle… It makes us feel like we’re on an epic adventure in the most beautifully simplistic ways.