I've never cared more about a video game's story and characters than I did in Mass Effect 2, yet that's an overly simplified way of explaining my adoration for BioWare's RPG. Mass Effect 2 is the type of game I dreamed would be possible years and years ago as a kid, a pinnacle of interactive science fiction that spent enough time with Commander Shepard's individual squad members to feel like they were my own team. It's the first chance to see your influences in Mass Effect carry over to a new chapter in Shepard's tale as well, bestowing a sense of purpose to the grand universe, even if the impact of your decisions feel miniscule in a given moment. Mass Effect 2 is my favorite game in the Citadel, let alone the past decade.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Starbreeze / 2013
Brothers features no dialogue, yet it's one of the most emotional journeys I've embarked on in a game. It managed to convey the dependence of two siblings on one another through its control scheme and puzzle design, which alone deserves a massive amount of recognition. Brothers is my favorite example of a game accomplishing so much while offering so little in terms of its minimal approach to storytelling.
Alan Wake – Remedy / 2010
This may be a full retail game, yet Alan Wake is my favorite "episodic" game in existence thanks to its chapter-based structure. Having to follow the dream-like, twisting plot that unwound as the titular hero narrated it compounded a mystery that felt quite unsolved as the final credits rolled. Normally that would be a point worth complaining about, yet Alan Wake sent me spiraling to the depths of the Internet to find any and all pieces of plot analysis and speculation from the game's community. This game is an ocean.
Limbo – Playdead / 2010
PlayDead's Limbo was altogether gruesome, terrifying and beautiful without having to really show players what's behind the curtain. A positively great platformer that's certainly best known for its dark, silhouetted style, Limbo was mysterious in the way it introduced a boy on the hunt for his sister getting caught up in an increasingly-mechanized world. The levels grew more industrial, each seemingly created specifically with the intent of destroying the boy. I felt the game could stand as a metaphor for a number of things, the more obvious one being about the trials of life itself, as indicated by the game's title. Limbo is a thoroughly enjoyable game however, with or without a deeper read.
Journey – thatgamecompany / 2012
Leaving the meaty parts of the story up to the interpretation of the player appears to be a theme in my favorite games of the decade, and one of the more noteworthy examples is Thatgamecompany's Journey. Unlike the single-player adventures however, Journey gave players a chance to quietly experience a fantastically simple tale with another player across the globe. I'll never forget forming a fleeting bond with a stranger up to the game's climactic "a-ha" moment.
Shadow of the Colossus – Team Ico / 2005
Wander's journey is a lonely one in Shadow of the Colossus. The forbidden lands you explore in the game are largely desolate save for the monstrous bosses you've set out to conquer. I'm of the opinion that the tragically overused phrase "epic" is best suited for SotC goliath battles, the results of which gradually wear on the hero in a curious way. The ending of its somewhat understated story, which again is open for debate, features what most view as a nod to the developer's previous game, Ico. I had a deep appreciation for the open-endedness of both games, though the hauntingly empty areas of SotC left a colossal imprint on me.
Portal – Valve / 2007
Yeah, yeah, we get it: "The cake is a lie." The overused meme-generating jokes and imagery of Portal didn't put this game on my list; a cluster of excellent first-person puzzle-platforming levels did. As much as the enclosed cells of Portal should have made me feel a little claustrophobic, the game's portal-creating gun instantly expanded my view of the rooms in a basic, yet remarkable way. Discovering what actually lies beyond the test chamber walls in Portal was essentially icing on the cake which, again, was a lie.
Super Mario Galaxy – Nintendo / 2007
Mario's leap to the Wii was a beautiful one. Trotting around Galaxy's many globes and collecting stars all alone wasn't my cup of tea though, as the game earns a spot as one of my favorite cooperative multiplayer experiences of the past ten years. Shooting star bits as the second player in Galaxy wasn't technically incredible in terms of co-op gaming, but Galaxy remained enjoyable for my fiancee and me through the entire game. Sharing Galaxy's levels as a team are moments that I wouldn't trade for anything.
Castle Crashers – The Behemoth / 2008
Likewise, our time with Castle Crashers was equally as entertaining as Super Mario Galaxy. Castle Crashers wasn't just a lovely multiplayer beat-em-up for me, however. I had a fondness for The Behemoth's commitment to carrying Castle Crashers' quirks and jokes through its entire adventure, which included plenty of cute, helpful critters and odd weapons to collect. For whatever it's worth, Castle Crashers lit the torch and led the way for console-based downloadable games for me.
No More Heroes – Grasshopper Manufacture / 2007
Often seen as a poor man's GTA, Suda 51's zany No More Heroes always felt like it had a bit of elusive depth to it beneath its thick layer of cocky hypersexuality. Is the mostly-empty Santa Destroy really the projection of a self-absorbed 20-something asshole? Does Travis Touchdown represent the youthful ignorance of American culture? What in the ever-living hell is the "Garden of Madness" anyway? I pondered these questions while meticulously collecting new outfits for Travis, slamming enemies with QTE-style wrestling moves and ripping them apart with a beam katana. Was there ever a point to being the best assassin in the world? The best answer I could ever come up with was, "I don't know, maybe. Whatever."
[Images: EA, Starbreeze, Remedy, Playdead, thatgamecompany, Team Ico, Valve, Nintendo, The Behemoth, Grasshopper Manufacture]