Much has been made of Portal's innovative gameplay and pitch-black sense of humor, but the game's core strength, one that all its best points spring from, is that it's subversive. At every turn, it forces players to rethink what makes a game great. There are no sweeping alien vistas or eye-popping cutscenes. Every minute of the game is played from the perspective of a nameless, voiceless female prisoner trapped in a drab but deadly testing laboratory. There are no items to collect, skills to upgrade, or quests to achieve. And most importantly, the heroine never wields a weapon. She redirects her captor's destructive impulses with the non-violent confidence of an aikido master. When we follow her trajectory from guinea pig to free woman, it's like we're throwing off chains of our own.
2. Rock Band
Breakups can be traumatic. When Harmonix and Red Octane, two halves of the Guitar Hero game-making super-group, split, there was the distinct possibility of a Van Halen effect, with neither party ever reaching the heights they'd managed as a team. With Rock Band, Harmonix proved that it has serious staying power as a solo artist. Adding vocals, drums, and a second guitar already made Rock Band more collaborative and infinitely more entertaining as a party game. But the X-factor that ultimately makes Rock Band cooler than Guitar Hero III is the street cred. Rock Band's songs, style, and sensibility feel genuine and fueled by a passion for music, friends, and fun. You can't fake that.
3. Halo 3
This is an obvious choice, and one that was shoved down the public's throats as Halo 3 became one of the hardest-pushed—and highest-selling—blockbusters of any kind this year. But the millions of people who huddle around it at lunch, in dorms, or online late every night can't be wrong. The story that ships with the game is a snooze, but its many multiplayer modes and well-balanced weaponry satisfy everyone from the team-based and tactical players who master the game all the way down to any Joe Everyman with 10 minutes to get online and kill people. And some people spend all night, not playing match after match, but snagging and sharing the perfect snapshot of their Spartan rifle nailing another player with a headshot from across the map. The future of the online community is now.
What most people will remember about BioShock are the little sisters—the moral conundrum that comes early in the game, when you have to decide whether to kill a monstrous girl, or try to save her. It isn't a deep choice, and not much hinges on it. But by late summer, it became a great get-to-know-you choice: What did you choose? Did you harvest the girls for their resources, or show mercy, knowing their sacrifice could have helped you? Other games had more nuanced morals, but this question was so stark that it inspired players' imaginations, and so did the vividly realized Art Deco underwater setting, perfect for Swing Era nostalgia and round-robin, panicky chase sequences. Portal stole some of its thunder as a piece of storytelling, but its survival-horror-shooter-superpower-thriller experience was second to none in originality.
5. Pac-Man: Championship Edition
There are two ways to preserve the classics. You can encase them in amber, allowing the passage of time to make them more inaccessible. Or you can go the Ridley Scott route. Pac-Man: Championship Edition had the cojones to futz with greatness, and like the re-tooled Blade Runner, it came away improved. The core game mechanic is identical; Pac-Man eats, runs, and does nothing else. Only now the screen morphs into new mazes once all the dots are devoured. Hazy static warps the view when a power pill goes down. Ghosts are even more relentless, chasing faster after every defeat. The game's major innovation is a time limit, asking players to wring points out of a five-minute run rather than endure a marathon-length high-score session. The arcade is dead. Long live Xbox Live Arcade.
6. Jets 'N' Guns: Gold
By the last levels of Jets 'N' Guns: Gold, as your ship bristles with cannons and missiles all simultaneously firing while enemies swarm from all sides, so much is happening on the screen that your brain should just shut down and hide. An indie shoot-'em-up with heart and balls, Jets 'N' Guns: Gold throws an overwhelming amount of tricks and references at you—from Douglas Adams to Jesus Christ Superstar to zombie metalheads to flying mice to pirates to phallic battleships to flying piña coladas—and while even the easiest setting is excruciatingly hard, it never feels less than satisfying. The developers genuinely want you to succeed, giving you useful play tips to help you get to the next totally wicked awesome thing they crammed into the game's 40-some levels. Many indie titles were subtler, but few were as passionate, or pushed their freedom to such ridiculous, joyous extremes.