This independent game has a simple premise: you run a border checkpoint in a fictional communist Eastern Bloc country, and you must check everybody's papers to make sure nobody gets through illegally. Make a mistake and your meager pay is docked and your family suffers. As it goes on, some moral conundrums will arise, and your desire to "win" will be tested. "Papers, Please" is a great use of the gaming as a means of expression.
"The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt"
There are a lot of expansive, 100-hour role-playing games out there, but none of the others can touch "The Witcher 3" for substance. The hallmark of this subgenre is quantity over quality, but "The Witcher 3" manages to be stuffed with actual characters and a real plot that rarely lags -- an incredibly rare accomplishment for a game like this.
"FTL: Faster Than Light"
It's a game about taking the crew of a small starship on a journey across the stars as an enemy fleet gives chase. Failure is permanent, and death really is the end -- and you're as likely to get done in by a bad choice in a seemingly benign situation as you are to get murdered by the bad guys. "FTL" is as tense as games get.
It's soccer, but with cars. And it might just be the best sports game ever made, at least in terms of sheer fun and playability. Whereas stuff like "Madden" and "NBA 2K" go deeper as a simulation of the sports they depict, "Rocket League" is all about pick up and play. It's also a great party game.
"Spirits of Xanadu"
It may not look like much, with the sort of visuals you'd expect from a mid-90s game rather than one that came out in 2015. And its premise is certainly worn out -- here we have yet another game about exploring a derelict spaceship. But "Spirits of Xanadu" is much greater than either of those things would imply, utilizing legitimate economy in its storytelling. "Xanadu" demonstrated that how game developers use the resources they have matters more in making a great game than simply having a lot of resources.
This is a bit of a cheat, as "StarCraft 2" is technically a trilogy of games, "Wings of Liberty," "Heart of the Swarm" and "Legacy of the Void," each of which you have to buy separately. But it's still the strategy game of strategy games on a platform that's full of them. It's great to play and tells a really compelling story, a rarity for this genre.
"The Talos Principle"
In "Talos," a robot is put through a series of intelligence tests to see if it has what it takes to be a person. These tasks are handed down by a voice in the sky that refers to itself as Elohim, and the hook is that you're one of many robots being put through the paces -- because this world is in a computer built by the last living humans, and these tests are intended to create a successor race.
"Call of Duty: Black Ops 2"
Not just the best "Call of Duty," but the first-person shooter of the 21st century. For a franchise that snobbish gamers like to write off for being blustery, "Black Ops 2" manages to be wildly inventive in how it tells its story, using seamless story branching that hinges more on failure or success in key moments than on intentionally making a decision. If you didn't know "Black Ops 2" had a branching plot structure, in fact, you might play all the way through it without realizing what it's doing.
That "Black Ops 2" is also the reigning best multiplayer shooter is just a bonus.
It's not the scariest game ever made, but it sure puts you on edge. You wander an old space station infested with alien xenomorphs you aren't able to kill. You can't fight them, so you have to outsmart them -- a tall task since these xenos are as intelligent as any digital foe we've encountered before.
Some of the best video games are those that are so good nobody else has been able to really copy them, and the "Portal" series is the poster child for that. "Portal 2," released in 2011, is both hilarious and mindbending -- a puzzle experience worth revisiting over and over.
"Star Wars: The Old Republic"
BioWare made a mistake in trying to meld its signature brand of storytelling with the sort of online game experience popularized by "World of Warcraft." But in the years since it first hit the market in 2011, "The Old Republic" has slowly morphed into a pretty good approximation of what we want from a BioWare. That's lucky for us, because it contains the best "Star Wars" stories of the 2010s.
As the title would suggest, "Parnormal" is an attempt to adapt the template of the "Paranormal Activity" films into game from, and it works pretty well. Though it's little more than a randomized haunted house simulator, "Paranormal" is scarier than nearly any other game that's come out in the last few years.
"Kalimba" is an incredible spin on the tired puzzle platformer genre. Instead of giving you one Mario-type figure to control as you move through levels, it gives you two -- which you have to control simultaneously.
"Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords"
The pinnacle of the old "Star Wars" Expanded Universe, "Knights of the Old Republic 2" is a deconstruction of the world's most popular entertainment franchise. "KOTOR 2" has no respect for the way you think "Star Wars" works, putting you in the role of a Jedi under the tutelage of a master who offers every lesson as a riddle for which there is no correct answer. For "Star Wars," a dip into nihilism is refreshing, and "KOTOR 2" is refreshing as hell.
A lot of creators of role-playing games tout their freedom of choice and branching stories, but it's nearly always an illusion. In the spy thriller "Alpha Protocol" it's still an illusion, but it's far more complex than what we're used to. It's also short enough to play through a bunch of times to try out all the different possibilities, something that can't be said about most other branching plot RPGs.