The last generation of consoles (Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 3) for the most part is over. I have no plans to purchase the new systems until the price drops and their libraries fill up with quality games. That is quality games I cannot buy on Steam during one of their sales for 50 percent less than retail price. This continues to become a smaller number as time goes on. If you do a quick google search you can see that most systems don't begin to hit their stride until a year after they come out.
I specifically own a Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii covered in dust but this isn't disparaging in anyway to Playstation 3. A lot of great games came out exclusively for the PS3 and some of the games on this list are also on that system but I never wanted to buy one. The Xbox 360 got me back into gaming that I had shied from in the early years of high school replacing it with a love of music, not realizing I could do both. An ex-girlfriend specifically got me back into gaming when she had me try Dead Rising, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Gears of War at her house. In 2007 I had only dated one other gamer five years before with all the exes in between either dismissing video games as childish or irritated that it took time away from spending with them. So when the assistant manager at my job was selling a barely used Xbox 360 I took it as an opportunity to buy one so we may share in something we both enjoyed doing. Unfortunately the relationship didn't last long enough to see that happen but that fall line-up of games for the 360 got me back into gaming at full throttle with the likes of Halo 3, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and The Orange Box.
The number of games I bought for the Xbox 360 matched the amount I had as a kid for Super Nintendo Entertainment System and doubled what I had for Nintendo 64 and Nintendo GameCube combined. These are the five that had the biggest impact on me. Impact is a bit vague as there is not set criteria in how I am judging these games. When I chose these five I'm thinking of the time I spent playing them, the world that the developers built and the stories and characters created and developed within that world. Two of these are a series of games. Be warned, there will be spoilers.
5. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
I wonder how many people besides me played Fallout 3 before Oblivion? As previously started, I first tried this game on my ex-girlfriend's Xbox 360 to which I wasted most of the time creating the ugliest character I could and then remember none of what I did when I actually bought the game two years later. I think she was frustrated I wasn't taking it as seriously as I should. She had hours into her saves on that game and I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. I would soon have saves with similar amount of hours. To go from the bleak landscape of the post-nuclear apocalypse to the lush lands of Cyrodiil was quite the change, a welcome one. This game was beautiful but insanely difficult for me compared to Fallout 3, mostly because I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't even know you were supposed to repair your items until I had almost completed the game. I would end up saving before almost any encounter with an enemy because I was constantly being killed, needing to load my last save and try some other strategy. Most of those strategies involved running away to fight a lesser creature so I could level up. Navigating through the gates of Oblivion was a constant test of my skill and every quest I completed was done with little health left. While a lot of the faces were goofy looking in hindsight I still look back at this game with fond nostalgia.
4. Portal & Portal 2.
Games have tried before to be funny, mostly the hack kind of funny with jokes you expect a comedian from the 80's to make in front of a brick wall and then never to be seen again. Where Portal and its sequel succeed in not only being a hilarious video game by video game standards but other standards of comedy. That's great but this is a video game, what about the actual gameplay? The first person puzzle mechanic using a gun that creates portals takes baby steps from teaching you how to get to the exit then steps it up with teaching you how to use velocity to complete the puzzle. All of this is framed by the science fiction setting of a futuristic research facility in which you are the guinea pig in experiments by the psychopathic A.I. computer that makes quips and insults about your weight. Throw in your badass but silent female protagonist and you have a game that used all of its aspects to its full potential where other games couldn't even get one correct often sacrificing one for the other.
3. The Mass Effect series.
I'll get this out of the way now, I didn't hate the ending nor did I really love it. I thought it was wrong for them to change the ending due to fan backlash and I was well aware that my choices ultimately would not matter. It was BioWare's story to tell, not mine. What made Mass Effect so fun was the illusion of choice. There's only two other games on this list I played more than Mass Effect 2 and they fill the first and second position. I loved my customized Commander Shepard who thanks to EA's code they give you was able to tweak in the second game to fit the upgrade appearance. I loved the cast of characters (except Ashley due to her speciesism) they gave you and how you gained their friendship by talking to them, each with their own personal quirks, failures and personalities.
How will the series be looked at in the future? Will it be considering the original Star Wars trilogy of games or just another trilogy that introduced the trend of moral choices in games? What I do know is that the difference choices, however much they mattered to the overall story, were fun enough to keep me playing the game repeatedly, well, almost. While I repeatedly played and beat the first and second the third game felt so final that I have never played it again after beating. I haven't touched the downloadable content nor have I taking the varying paths possible that I could of. The third game wrapped up all the storylines so thoroughly for me that I do not know if I'll ever play it again. It was only after writing this that I realized I had lent my copy to one of best friends who had played the series through with me and that almost two years after it came out he still has my copy of it.
2. Red Dead Redemption
What the Grand Theft Auto series has always lacked since Grand Theft Auto 3 has been any heart to it's story with characters that you care about. Niko Belic's arc within Grand Theft Auto 4 came close but was just out of reach. So Rockstar Games is left asking the question of how can they create a realistic world with unrealistic high levels of violence with a well written story with fleshed out characters. There was no other choice but to make a western where protagonist John Marston struggles against the wilderness, the changing world and his past as an outlaw. Along with the story, the setting is perfect for gameplay, you shoot people, you hunt, you ride on horseback, bring in bounties, play card games and if you want, hogtie a woman and put her on the train tracks. All the while through blood and violence you develop a attachment to John Marston's stoic man-of-few-words personality only to get your heart broken at the end.
What Red Dead Redemption gets right is themes of westerns that no other Wild West game has gotten right before while keeping the create chaotic violence nature of the Grand Theft Auto series with cowboys and horses instead of mobsters and cars. It has the revenge story, the ranch story, the outlaw story and the marshall story all within one game. When you play this game you have fun but also get told a story worthy of the great Westerns of cinema. When they made this game you can feel Rockstar wasn't afraid to escape the tropes they were known for, with unexpected quiet moments along with the loud blood rushing moments. It's a shame this game has never come to PC dooming it to the die with the previous generations of systems.
1. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim is not perfect. The quests can become repetitive at times, there was many bugs, and you have to create your own exceptional loot rather than finding unique ones that you found in Oblivion. What kept me coming back to Skyrim and logging in over 200 hours on just my Xbox 360 copy alone was I never had to play the same way twice. I could be a Breton battlemage, wielding a sword in one hand and a fireball in the other completely aligned with the Stormcloaks but secretly head of the Dark Brotherhood. I could be an Orc dual-wielding axes who can turn into a werewolf completely taking out any person who gets in my way. I could be a High Elf mage, earning my way to head of the Mages' College while fighting the forces of the dragon Alduin. All of this plus there was no set path, once I went one way I didn't have to stay on that path I could just explore the wide and beautiful world of Skyrim that Bethesda has created. There is something very satisfying in earning the skills in whatever particular abilities your using, hearing that sound effect as you watch the blue bar increase towards your next level.
I think satisfying is the word that keeps me coming back to the game. Video games are pure escapism mixed with the illusion of achievement and Skyrim satisfies that in me more than most other games. It's a fantasy world filled with sword and sorcery which I am drawn to with mixes of humor, violence, the hero's journey, the byronic hero and the grand scale storytelling mixed with this system of achievement that satisfies my brain. It's so satisfying when you successfully sneak up on someone with a dagger, when you lockpick that chest with only one lockpick left in your inventory, when you get that slow motion scene of the arrow going into the giant finishing off his last bit of health, and when you successfully defeated a draugr deathlord when you're horrible outmatched simply by using the right dragon shout to delay him in order to heal. Other games have come and gone but Skyrim for me holds the most replay value for a game that I have played so far. Here's to hoping I won't be waiting long for Elder Scrolls VI.
Runners up: Street Fighter IV, Alan Wake, Batman: Arkham series and Bioshock.
This was written with the help of The Video Game Style Guide and Reference Manual by David Thoms, Kyle Orland and Scott Steinberg and the AP Style Handbook 2013