BioShock will likely always be remembered for its game-changing “Would You Kindly?” twist, but the first adventure in Rapture is so much more than a dressed-up dupe. From first encountering a splicer caring for a gun the way a mother cares for her baby to the still-enrapturing Andrew Ryan twist toward the game’s end, BioShock delivers one enrapturing setpiece after another. That’s largely in part thanks to one of the most memorable locations in gaming history. So much story is embedded in the dilapidated hallways and shuttered rooms of Rapture, a decaying underwater labyrinth that demands to be investigated. The mark of a good experience is one that you keep thinking about long after you’ve finished it. And I still haven’t stopped thinking about BioShock, its incredible location, and those awesome Plasmids, over a decade later.
Super Nintendo players knew Final Fantasy VI as Final Fantasy III for years after its release in 1994, because no one expected this Japanese series to become so popular stateside that the original II and III would be localized and the series renumbered. What made Final Fantasy VI one of the exemplars—not just of console roleplaying, but the genre in general—was how pitch-perfectly it synthesized so many different tangents: real-time battles, summonable magic-bestowing creatures, indelible characters, party-swapping, heartrending plot twists, an unforgettably iniquitous villain, a four-minute play-along opera and its artful inflection of dark fantasy steampunk.
Taking it a step further, those cutscenes were paired with some truly talented voice acting and narrative design. As I played through the storyline I learned to love the different little characters I interacted with and felt genuine anger when the Zerg managed to capture Kerrigan and bend her to their will. This character had been with you through thick and thin and after she's captured you, of course, begin the mission to rescue her.
When I was famished for Dungeons and Dragons, Divinity: Original Sin 2 filled that void for me. It gave me the freedom to cheat, steal, kill, or persuade my way with kindness through the campaign with a friend (or three!) just like in D&D. Creative play is not only allowed, but encouraged and intentionally made possible by the developers. It felt liberating playing a huge RPG that rewards “cheating” the system, and encountering NPCs and opponents that acknowledge and react to it. I’ve since recommended it to all of my real-life D&D parties, and they’ve all come back with the same opinion: This is the best D&D experience you can get from a video game. DOS2 even has a Game Master mode, which lets you build your own campaigns. But, the built-in story is decidedly plenty and nearly infinitely replayable. The premade characters all have their own special storylines, and the numerous way things pan out depend on player actions, backstory choices, race, and more. Whether playing on an easy or hard difficulty setting, as an Elf Ranger or an Undead Conjurer, as a helpful adventurer or a murderous thief, DOS2 is a fun fantasy world to get lost in no matter what.
The original Fable, while very very good, never quite lived up to co-creator Peter Molyneux's lofty "plant an acorn and it will grow into a tree over the course of the game" promises. Fable 2, however, fulfilled an amazing amount of this charming, decidedly British-humored action-adventure. The world of Albion came alive on the Xbox 360, while Fable 2 was also one of the first games to give you a full-time canine companion. The dog was, in gameplay terms, rather straightforward, but for many players, the pooch tugged on your heartstrings and made you care about him/her in a way that you typically wouldn't above the average human or fantasy-pet RPG. Solid combat, a multiple-choice ending, great music and world-building, and a deft balance of action, adventure, and role-playing helped make Fable 2 both the pinnacle of the series and one of the finest bits of escapist fantasy ever coded.
Still, the highlight of StarCraft is easily its multiplayer. Few gaming moments are as satisfying as defending your base against a Zerg rush as the Protoss or successfully sending in a fleet of Terran to decimate an enemy's base. StarCraft is still played competitively in parts of the world, making it remain relevant for longer than almost any other video game in existence. There's a reason too. It's because the gameplay is so expertly crafted and balanced that players can continually go head to head with a different result each time. It's those near losses and photo finish victories that keep you coming back and have kept the series alive all these years.