Spread across a land beautiful but left alone, your quest in Shadow of the Colossus is to kill the last signs of life. The colossi must be slain - and why not? They're monsters, towering over you like giant gravestones, threatening to topple forward and crush you. They fall with an earth-rattling sigh once you've climbed them and pierced their hearts. It's a job well done for the hero.
Except Shadow of the Colossus, a game of unmatched craft and purity, is no friend to the hero. Its idea of progression is to poison you, slowly unraveling the hero, Wander, as he ends beast after beast in what seemed like a good idea at the time. Few games question the outcome of your actions, but Shadow of the Colossus finds its answer in a dark conclusion that renders you powerless.
Mirror's Edge – DICE / 2008
Mirror's Edge is the game that made me look up "proprioception." It captures the sense of where your limbs are, placing you into a first-person perspective that runs, jumps, slides and holds its breath better than any floating gun could. Our shared body belongs to Faith, who can use weapons – but not well, and not often. Instead, Mirror's Edge focuses on the thrill of escape in a stark, corporatized world that still looks ... just a little too realistic.
Vanquish – Platinum Games / 2010
Vanquish seems to have come at the end of an over-the-ocean game of Telephone. Shinji Mikami makes Resident Evil 4, a tense shooter in which you stand your ground and shoot ever-so-precisely as hordes of intimidating monsters inch closer. Resident Evil 4 goes on to inspire Western games like Gears of War, which rely on knee-high slabs of cover and larger-than-life moments to propel its players through the chicane.
Then, Mikami gets wind of this in Japan and oversees Vanquish, where you slide between cover like a skateboard attached to a roman candle. Your movement in a rocket powered robo-suit feels uncontrollable at first, but soon you fall into the game's thrilling tempo - thrusting into and launching out of enemy territory in a blink, vaulting over cover and firing a sniper's shot in one smooth maneuver, and quickly laying low before your suit burns itself out. You learn to love being on fire.
Far Cry 2 – Ubisoft Montreal / 2008
Far Cry 2 is a game in which everything is on fire, sooner or later. The Africa depicted here feels authentic, and more like a jagged battlefield than a playground. You can die of malaria, be gunned down by the world's never-ending supply of violent combatants, fall victim to malfunctioning weapons and otherwise do yourself over before you even see a safe house (and also a save point) cresting the horizon. I love how I bumble in this game, and I love how deaf it is to requests for more structure, more goals, more nav points, more XP, and more pop-ups to tell you about all the fun you're having.
Psychonauts – Double Fine / 2005
Spend a weekend at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and you'll run into Raz, Lili and an oversized lungfish named Linda. Overseen by Tim Schafer, Psychonauts brought the color and personality of classic adventure games to the platforming genre – the perfect place where you need not explain, necessarily, why floors fly above pits. So, of course, Psychonauts explains it all by venturing into some messed-up minds, including a memorable trip into a milkman's paranoid view of the world. Funny and weird in equal measure, Psychonauts makes it a sad marvel that so few games have looked inward to find new places.
Ninja Gaiden – Team Ninja / 2004
If I don't say how many times I've completed Ninja Gaiden from beginning to end, it's because I either lost track or because the number would be high enough to make me seem like a lunatic. Team Ninja transferred its fast-paced fighting flair from Dead or Alive into a third-person action game with Ninja Gaiden, granting the protagonist incredible fluidity and elevating enemies beyond mere meatbag-dom. Creatures are not meant to be dispatched – they keep you on your toes, chop off your head and drag your flailing body around on a pike. And don't even get me started on ghost fish.
Assassin's Creed – Ubisoft Montreal / 2007
Yes, yes, I know. I am fully and painfully aware of the many shortcomings in Assassin's Creed, particularly in how it fractured its missions into listless, repeatable chunks, but I still found much to love – and to continue loving in subsequent games. Ironically, the basic structure of Assassin's Creed – bereft of sidequests and distractions – made it a more involving role-playing game for me. With HUD disabled, I would try to learn the fascinating cities of Jerusalem and Damascus by their landmarks, as you would standing in their streets. And when it came to assassination, the game didn't really care if you were a ghostly assailant or a lunatic running into the crowd with a swinging sword. The game as an entity was oddly neutral in that it didn't really reward or punish your style, but it did leave you room enough to have a style, one way or the other.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – Kojima Productions / 2004
Metal Gear Solid 3 is Hideo Kojima at his best, which is also his most balanced. This doesn't make the cold-war era plot any less realistic, or less driven by extravagant cutscenes, but it has heart to it. Jumping back in time and to an earlier incarnation of Snake, we find what makes this patriotic soldier so adept, and what sorrow eventually eats away at his allegiances. Beyond that, Snake Eater is also a bizarre stealth game in which you mend your broken bones, eat frogs and frighten soldiers by tossing live snakes at them.
Super Meat Boy – Team Meat / 2010
Super Meat Boy is platforming perfection. It's challenging without disrespecting the player, making every failure an opportunity to learn and try again, right away. For as much as I love games that thrive on discovery and improvisation, Super Meat Boy is precise in its course design. The layout of the game's horrific buzzsaw gauntlets is both a test and a lesson from its creators, slowly teaching you new problems and how best to preserve yourself against them. I guess that makes it a game about curing meat.
Portal – Valve / 2007
Portal is brilliant, and you don't realize just how brilliant until you play the sequel. We went back willingly into the test chambers, devised once again by GLaDOS, the off-key artificial intelligence who respects data more than life itself. But Portal 2 (as excellent as it was) could never recapture the smart and self-aware turn at the end of the first game. It's fair to say that you've beaten any puzzle game when you've overcome its topsy-turvy spatial challenges, broken out of its box and killed its creator. You can never really go back.