This wasn't easy to come up with, and hard to differentiate between choosing stuff from my childhood and still being able to explain it, and recent stuff that makes more sense to my adult expectations.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
This is an old game, but I also just played through it again on my old SNES (made a post in that covid gaming one). This still feels like the most relevant Mario game to me, and I think it's always had something to do with the character and world building, giving everyone (but Mario) dialogue and a personality, that I'm not sure I really realized mattered to me as much in a game until then, even if I didn't realize it.
Conker's Bad Fur Day
N64 classic. Didn't even know what we were getting into at first, Dad rented it with a bunch of games back in the day, thought it was a good 'kids' platformer like Mario or Banjo that my sister also liked to play, she comes out and tells us there's cursing and stuff and it ends up being my favourite game for a long time. I had a Playstation, I know it was more 'adult' than Nintendo at the time, but I feel like this game did more cross so many lines in an interesting way. Played the story, played multiplayer even against bots, had some CTF games against einstein AI that I still have memories of, had to give credit to the AI back then when you could even rely on your teammates to do the right thing.
I almost didn't include this and the Mario RPG. It's typical, but it was also my first Final Fantasy and probably broke me into games like this, my experiences in previous gens I guess were just limited. The moment in this game that changed things for me the most was actually the first time you leave Midgard and see the World Map. I can't really explain why in retrospect, but before that moment I assumed that game was just going to take place in Midgard entirely, just destroying all the reactors and then the tower, like levels. It was so much more.
OG Xbox Live version. This is kinda getting credit in my life for more than just the game, but also experiences with people in it as it was one of my main first intros to online gaming then. A guy who hosted games for a group of us, fostered a real sense of community, is the reason I started watching Stargate lol, and ended up passing away and someone he knew signing in and telling people in his friends list to pass it around, showed how much that could mean. There were also just experiences we created ourselves that new games try to fabricate, like organizing our own squad and targets and firing together on a countdown and watching everyone drop at once, like Wildlands lets you do with markers and your squad AI but way more satisfying and without the UI helping us.
This one is here mainly because of how immersed I was in that world in my playthrough that one night all at once in the dark. I was so sucked in I was convinced for a moment I was supposed to fall in that pit at the end and die and that the game itself somehow didn't expect me to escape. The kind of thing that is hard to replicate but you wish you could experience fresh again.
The ending of this game makes me cry, in a way few things game or otherwise ever have without any obvious personal relevance. It is great artistic storytelling, and one of the strongest examples of why I think video games can be the greatest form of it, even just with the very last 'level', when executed properly when you are required to 'participate' in the moments that matter and feel like you are taking part in them, and not just watching/reading them.
Immersive puzzle game. The stuff behind Braid impresses me, but I didn't really get that deep into the game itself. I still haven't completey finished the Witness technically, but did a lot of the stuff, and just the layers and the design are very cool and I hope to go back to it and start over sometime and hope it feels close to fresh again. To have a game in it's entirety almost be about some kind of philosophical idea and to be so thoroughly thought out has stuck with me. Some games seem to try to be like part of it, but only puzzles, or art style, or something, but never execute all parts like this did.
Night in the Woods
I wish this game never ended. My favourite part about it was how it almost didn't feel like a game, and the experience for most of it of being played day by day (wake up in the morning, go back home to sleep at night). I played it after work every day, essentially one day at a time in game, and never wanted that to stop. Eventually it had it's ending but I just wanted to keep coming back and living in that city and keep talking to people every day.
This is kind of a cheat one. I may be referencing both Return to Castle Wolfenstein (X-Box Live) and The New Order. Xbox live is similar to Ghost Recon in the social gaming aspect of it's importance, playing with Brits who never slept until the late hours, coming up with knife games in rooms where no one joined, then getting one guy who tried to break in on his own to die on the barbed wire. The New Order I feel deserves credit as such a great re-introduction to the franchise, in a way I wasn't even completely expecting. I'd heard good things but it took ages for me to finally get my disc copy to work (it had known download issues, had to go back and uninstall and re-do it offline or something but I procrastinated), but when I did I regretted not doing so earlier. There was one random article that makes a point of stating that the sex scenes in the game are actually really good, and that stuck with me, especially when you realize just how true that is and honestly they feel better and more genuinely executed than a lot of the sex scenes they throw in tv shows nowadays, which is something you don't expect a game to do but that I think it deserves a lot of credit for and I wish it could serve as some kind of example lol.
possibly a cheat too. Definitely Starcraft and Brood War were important in my random early pc gaming along with some others that could be on this list, but I had way more consoles and crappy pc's. Part of this is what Starcraft is to me now, which is more than a game. I didn't have much experience back then, one month of playing with a friend thanks to phone line internet until his mom got the bill. He reached out to me ages later about SC2 and we both got it and played together for a bit, don't anymore, but with more internet access now I discovered it as an eSport and what was going on in Korea all that time and got completely sucked in and still follow it. Hard to think of anything else that ever had me up at 4 in the morning on multiple weekdays to watch GSL, or attending some of the Live events in Toronto and them feeling like they held as much importance to me as my trip to see two Moto GP races in Portugal/Spain. Even if I don't always watch and keep up with everything as much anymore, I always have my eye on it, and it exists as a sport I follow as importantly as Soccer essentially.