#20 and #19: To The Moon and Finding Paradise (Freebird Games, PC, 2011/2017)
These get one entry because they're basically the same game with a different story. Both follow Drs. Rosalene and Watts on assignments to simulate a dying client's final wish by altering their memories so they can experience the life they wish they had. Johnny wants to go, shockingly, to the moon. Colin's wish is seemingly a paradox. Each game looks out how the life the patient actually had, how they came to wish for something else, and what they'd have to give up to get there. But they're also about the good doctors and the surviving relatives of the patients. And, when they have time for it, they're much funnier than you'd guess from the subject matter. "It made me cry" is very overused praise, but if any games are every going to do it, it's probably these two.
#18: Horizon Zero Dawn: Frozen Wilds (Guerilla Games/Sony, PS4, 2017)
"Wait!", I hear you say. "Horizon was already on this list!" Well, Horizon is one of two games on this list with a DLC so much better than the main game that it only felt fair to list them separately. Frozen Wilds does more to address the flaws of the base game than almost any other DLC. It has a better story, better sidequests, less tedious collectibles, better characters, and pretty much better any other noun you can think of. Obviously I also love HZD itself - it was #74, after all - but FW blows it away in every regard.
#17: XCOM: Enemy Within (Firaxis/2K, PC, 2013)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is already an incredibly tight strategy game, asking you to balance R&D, satellite coverage, member state opinions, and building a base all on top of actually winning the TRPG battles against aliens. Enemy Within takes that even further with a secondary objective to thwart and eventually hunt down a faction of human traitors, new objectives and maps, and the ability to make cyborgs and human/alien chimera soldiers. Sid Meier famously described a good strategy game as "a series of interesting decisions", and this game is just an endless stream of them until the credits.
#16: Duelyst (Counterplay Games, PC, 2016)
So this is a bit of an exception to the rule that games are being ranked for how good they are right now because... you haven't been able to play Duelyst since last year. It's offline. But when you could play it, it was a mix of Magic: The Gathering with a TRPG. You'd play units from your hand to a spot adjacent to another of yours on the board, and then you'd move and attack with all your existing units. Whoever killed the other's general first won. There were something like six factions with their own mechanics, cards with all sorts of crazy abilities, and stunning backgrounds to hide the fact there was only one map. This was my favorite pure-multiplayer game by such a huge margin that there aren't any others on this list.
#15: Persona 4 Golden (Atlus, Vita, 2012)
P4 and P3 would've had a joint ranking like the Freebird games above until Golden came out. It scatters new scenes and activities throughout the story, which are all worthwhile, but it's the bonus month that really takes it to another level. Unlike the bonus month that would later show up in P5, this one is just another 30 days of the regular game, which you need to finish the additional social links and side content. And to listen to the snow theme for hours. There's also a great final dungeon and some fun side scenes thrown in after that month.
#14: The Last of Us: Left Behind (Naughty Dog/Sony, PS4, 2014)
I might've been referring to TLOU2 when I said they eventually realized you should just play the whole game as Ellie, but no, I meant Left Behind. It's a standalone DLC that bounces between events just before and in the middle of the game. Both parts are in a mall, but one is almost still functioning, it's summer, and you're with your girlfriend. (That upset some people who then somehow forgot and were upset again when Part 2 came along) The other mall is in winter, you're alone, and it's barely standing. It's a great contrast, but it's the prequel chapters that work best. That's when TLOU stops being gritty for a bit to focus on two kids exploring a mall when they shouldn't be. Games usually ignore the civilian side of the post-apocalypse, but Left Behind shows that's where some of the best stories are.
#13: Silent Hill 3 (Team Silent/Konami, PS2, 2003)
SH3 stars Heather, who does not have time to be a horror game protagonist. The main villain shows up, and she doesn't care what her name is. She repeatedly walks away from the poor detective who's just trying to advance the plot. Heather is very annoyed that Silent Hill keeps trying to pull her in, and she's not going to check a toilet for any keys. That's disgusting. SH3 absolutely is a horror game and probably will succeed at scaring you, but it's all the way up here at #13 because of how funny it is that its protagonist just is not interested in participating.
#12: Total War: Three Kingdoms (Creative Assembly/SEGA, PC, 2019)
You might've gathered by this point that I really like playing games as the wrong protagonist. Three Kingdoms nails that. Dynasty Warriors made the heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms famous even in the West, but I don't care about any of them. I want to play as a 19 year old bandit queen who was probably apocryphal and hardly played a role even in the book. She starts with no land, at war with what's left of the Han Dynasty, and also everyone else hates her because, you know, she's a bandit. It's not a great starting position. But piecing together an empire from that dumpster fire of a beginning is incredibly fun, and the series' best mechanics and most interesting tech trees to date are cherries on top.
#11: Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, PC, 2017)
Hollow Knight is a combination of a metroidvania and a souslike. I do not enjoy most metroidvanias, and I've never stayed interested in another souslike for long enough to get much past halfway. But not only did I finish Hollow Knight nearly 100%, it's on the edge of my top 10 games ever. That's because it doesn't matter that I don't like the core genres when they're done this well. HK's world fits together better than any other, and its levels communicate a story largely just by existing. But it also actually does tell a story alongside the environmental bits, and its bosses and NPCs fit into that as well as the environments. It's a game that knows exactly what it wants to be, and every piece of it builds towards that vision. Hopefully the upcoming Silksong can take it even further.