ClassicRadar: The Best Videogame Stories Ever

This month marks the five-year anniversary of GamesRadar, and to celebrate, we’re bringing back some of our favorite features from the past. The following originally posted in April 2008, and hasn’t been edited since, so… What videogame stories from before or after deserve to be added to the list? Add your suggestions in the comments.

Whoever said videogames have no cultural value needs a shot in the mouth - or they need to sit down with The Longest Journey, Metal Gear Solid or any of the other games on our list of Best Videogame Stories EVER. A good story isn’t necessary for a good game (Halo, Super Mario Galaxy or Tetris, anyone?) but that’s what makes the games on our list just that much more important. These are good games with amazing stories of epic battles, emotional intrigues, bloody betrayals and mind-bending existentialisms that do more than make you play the game. They make you love the game and remember it long after the tale is told.


(360/PC/PS3, 2007)

The Story:
You wake up in a sterile chamber with nothing more than a toilet and a radio. With the disembodied voice of GLaDOS as your only companion, you traverse your way through a series of chambers, each testing your problem solving skills with spatial puzzles. The whole set-up seems innocuous at first, but soon the tests become wrought with physical danger instead of merely being difficult. A sinister edge takes shape, as GLaDOS slowly reveals layers of her own personality, not all of which have your best interest in mind.

Cracks in the perfect, clinical facade begin to appear, both physically (when you're able to go behind some of the walls and see the work of a troubled graffiti artist), and in GLaDOS's erratic behavior. But your tester has taught you too well, and you're able to escape from the testing area into the facility itself, where you confront GLaDOS's main hub, destroy her (or not - psych!), and explode onto the surface outside.

Why it's the Best:
Portal's mysteries (Who scribbled on the walls? Where are all the people? What purpose to the tests serve?) aren't just mysteries for mystery's sake that leave the player frustrated and  confused. They're delicious enigmas that we actually enjoy pondering, rather than feeling like  the writers copped out and were just too lazy to answer everything sufficiently, like in so many  other irritatingly vague game stories.

In fact, one of Portal's greatest strengths is that it didn't overstay its welcome by over-explaining or over-extending itself, and was content to simply be the rich tableau that it is. Some complained of its shortness, but there's something to be said for being able to experience a complete story in a single sitting. Sure, 50-hour RPGs and phonebook-sized novels offer richly detailed worlds, but the necessity of breaking that experience up into chunks will, sadly, always dilute our immersion in those worlds to some degree.

But the real reason Portal makes it onto this list is GLaDOS - one of the strongest personalities ever known in gaming - who redefined "passive-aggressive" for anyone who survived her arsenal of mind games. It's a testament to the power of her character that her presence was felt so strongly throughout the game, even though we never actually see a glimpse of her until the end, and even then not in any remotely humanoid form. But even though she doesn't have a face, we can't help but anthropomorphize her lovably sadistic programming. 

The spirit of GLaDOS, and therefore the spirit of Portal, is best summed up in her triumphant ending theme, which we were delighted to hear for the first time despite all the shit she had just put us through. Talk about manipulative.

Beyond Good & Evil

(PS2/Xbox/GameCube/PC, 1998)

The Story: 
You play Jade, a young news reporter who just happens to also live with a house full of orphans - but she grew up there or something, so it's not quite as hokey as it sounds. When aliens show up and kidnap a bunch of her orphans, Jade sets out to rescue them. Soon Jade and her sidekicks learn more and more about the aliens, the government, and how both are preying upon the little people.

Why it's the Best: 
Because it's a darker-than-you-think, galactic-scale story with characters you actually give a damn about. They're noble and funny and they love each other - and, by extension, you.

Jade may be the perfect heroine; she's strong, smart, sexy and compassionate. She's basically the kind of woman whom girls want to be and guys want to be with. Usually at Jade's side is Uncle Pey'j: a walking, talking, pants-wearing pig who talks like a cartoon Texan and invents things like fart-powered jet boots. He's clearly not her blood uncle (that's obvious, right?) but the familial bond between the two of them is tangible and touching.

Next comes Double H. This lovable lunkhead enthusiastically cannonballs into even the most hopeless battle as long it's the noble thing to do - good thing he's fully armored. Even Secundo, a sassy virtual intelligence that handles Jade's email and hacking in between affectionate wisecracks, is endearing and possessed of more personality than typical game characters.

More importantly, these folks aren't just likeable; they're inspiringly committed to one another, which comes in handy when things get hairy. Despite the lighthearted art style and children's book cuteness of some of the characters, this is dark, sinister stuff. Over time, the situations grow ever more dangerous, and the plot gets deeper and bigger and more unsettling. This isn't mindless, save the cardboard princess from the one-dimensional dragon crap. It's about kidnapping and corruption and trust and family and genocide and death and all sorts of sacrifice and risk and loss. It means something.

Well, at least it should mean something. The only real flaw in BG&E's story is the ending, which jumps the shark with an unneeded revelation that just doesn't make much sense and signs off with a definite lack of closure. Seriously: we know Jade's a battery or something, but is she still in that cave? The only picture we see her in during the epilogue could have been taken before the game even started. A sequel could have straightened all this out, but thus far there hasn't been one. Dammit.

Still, this is one fantastic story, built on a time-tested theme: loyalty. You're always in danger, but your friends are always right there by your side (unless they're in even bigger trouble). And their devotion to one another even in the face of nigh-insurmountable peril makes this special. Beyond Good & Evil is not just about a girl rescuing the only family she knows; it's about a girl and a few friends sticking together and rescuing her entire planet, creating some of the most memorable, heartfelt moments in gaming along the way.

Here's the inspirational opening:

Final Fantasy VI

(SNES, 1994)

The Story:
An oppressive regime is attempting to unlock magic that nearly destroyed the world a thousand years earlier. In the process of re-discovering these forbidden mystic arts, the empire creates magic-infused soldiers that harness destructive abilities not seen in ages, one of whom is finally driven insane and seeks to not only overthrow the empire, but also reshape the world in his twisted image. He eventually succeeds after finally discovering the source of all magic - three statues that house actual gods - and plunges the planet into ruin. Your party, having failed to stop the nutcase in the first place, is scattered across the globe and has to try all over again to stop a man that seemingly has all of creation under his sociopathic control.

You can condense it further to "crazy guy becomes all-powerful, wrecks the planet, then is killed by heroes" and it loses all semblance of depth. But pry just a hair's breadth deeper and you'll find a cast of characters that rivals anything else on the market, past, present and most likely far into the future.

Why it's the best:
Final Fantasy VI is all about personality. Each lead in this 14-strong ensemble cast has a distinct past, a reason to fight and a load of emotional baggage that'd make the staunchest of psychologists weep. Terra, after being used as a puppet of the empire, finds she's the product of a union between a human and an Esper, who are all that remain of magic in the world. She's an unholy mix that frightens the heroes and excites the villains, all alone in her quest for identity. Cyan has to watch his entire castle, wife and child included, poisoned and killed. After the world is destroyed, Celes believes all of her friends are dead and attempts suicide in one of the most heart-tearing moments we've ever witnessed in gaming. The soul-shearing barbs keep coming throughout the story, making FFVI much more personal than any before it, and arguably any since.

See, this was the last Final Fantasy that had to focus on story and characters because the graphics were too primitive to showcase anything but blinking eyes and sagging heads. Even FFVII, widely hailed as the best thing that mankind has ever created, resorted to stereotypes and flashy cinemas instead of nailing down an unrivaled narrative. FFVI stands as the last line of defense against modern-day, style-over-substance RPGs. You spend so much time appreciating the technology that you forget how silly and trite some of the interactions really are.

Then there's Kefka. We named him one of the series' best villains before and aren't about to step down from that opinion. By the time you run into him, he's already lost his mind and is well on his way to overthrowing the empire and claiming ultimate power. Like literally, ultimate power. Once imbued with said abilities, Kefka takes a scalpel to the planet, ripping up continents and murdering vast numbers of people just to see if he can. Then, with what's left, he creates a towering pile of refuse and junk to act as his massive throne. His reaction? Laughter. Constant laughter.

Plenty of villains aspire to ruin the world - Kefka actually did, and his unwavering devotion to destruction makes the story's impact that much stronger.

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  • CataclysmicBane - May 30, 2011 9:43 a.m.

    Legacy of Kain...nuff said
  • DreamWeaverPL - March 18, 2011 7:26 p.m.

    GOD OF WAR? ASTROBOY? SAN ANDREAS? Seriously guys, come on! That's not even funny, those are lame excuses for a storyline. _^_
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - March 18, 2011 1:31 p.m.

    San Andreas is my favorite GTA, glad it's in there. As for any new games, I think that Assassin's Creed II had a really good story. As long as you leave out that crazy stuff about the gods or aliens or whatever they are, there's really nothing wrong with it. There's always something to do, and the plot was really compelling. Red Dead Redemption also deserves to be on here. I still remember the end like it was yesterday...
  • Gene - March 18, 2011 9:24 a.m.

    @ happymasksalesman I approve of your username. Also, I believe Gamesradar will be with me on this one: Braid. The story in Braid, and the way it links with the gameplay is of a rare quality.
  • Yeager1122 - March 18, 2011 1:05 a.m.

    Ah KOTOR love that game my first pc game and one of my favorites actually playing it again right now.
  • gilgamesh310 - March 17, 2011 11:07 p.m.

    Okay, something that needs to be pointed out here and much elsewhere besides is that the story in Bioshock is a carbon copy of Irrational games earlier and superior System shock 2. It's 95% similar, with mainly just different characters and a different setting. It's an outrage that Bioshock's story is celebrated and the game itself as well when SS 2 had the same story and done the game itslef was much better too. System Shock 2 should be on this list and every other list like it and NOT Bioshock. Secondly, where is Deus Ex? Thirdly, why is Portal here but not Half Life 2? God of War gets a mention here but not either of these games.
  • LordZarlon - March 17, 2011 9:09 p.m.

    What about any of the Wing Commanders, Starcraft, Command and Conquer, Warcraft 3, Full Throttle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island 1 or 2 or Halo. There's too many to choose from.
  • FrozenImplosion - March 17, 2011 8:43 p.m.

    Well put together list! Also, the piece about Bioshock was superb, couldn't have said it better myself.
  • CandiedJester - March 17, 2011 8:43 p.m.

    You know, I came in here thinking I was gonna have to berate you for neglecting Planescape: Torment and the old Fallout games, but I was wrong! I am surprised!! Well done. I can still berate you for including a grand theft auto game, though...
  • happymasksalesman - March 17, 2011 8:42 p.m.

    @Gene I read your comment, and thought to myself "is that me?" You nailed all of the great things about Majora's Mask, my personal favorite game of all time. Also, I too was hoping to see Chrono Trigger on this list.
  • scsmith1 - March 17, 2011 8:08 p.m.

    1998 was a great year for the PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox, apparently...
  • acehard - March 17, 2011 6:40 p.m.

    um halo? its pretty deep with a shit load of books and background stories, and all the games follow a good steady storyline. And i would say gears, dead space, and mass effect would be good contenders too pretty
  • MancisFrorkYorgan - March 17, 2011 5:36 p.m.

    Deadly Premonition. I'm a massive fan of the game, so it probably seems like I'm plugging it, but the story was absolutely stellar.
  • CAPST3R - March 17, 2011 5:19 p.m.

    Any game where a dog dies. Especially if it had a name.
  • ArPi - March 17, 2011 4:53 p.m.

    ehmz, where the heck is Diablo? or Vampire The Masquerade/Bloodlines? also Warcraft.
  • Clovin64 - March 17, 2011 3:53 p.m.

    Awesome article guys. Final Fantasy VI and Silent Hill 2 are two of my favourite games ever, and SH2 in particular has my favourite story of any game. You guys should do a new updated list sometime that includes stuff like Bioshock 2, Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption, and also Enslaved (the ending was a bit out of the blue, but until then the story and characters were fantastic).
  • Tasty_Pasta - March 17, 2011 3:52 p.m.

    Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne would have been good additions to the list.
  • dcbernman - March 17, 2011 2:18 p.m.

    Ah, stories. They may be the main reason why I love games. Definitely agree with what was said about Majora's mask. I remember reading this article and thinking to myself "wow, I have hardly played any of these, and they all look awesome!" And so, two years ago, I began playing through as many greats on as many platforms as possible since the snes era. And so far, it's been one hell of a ride. I'm hoping to get started on The Longest Journey soon and I can't wait! As far as stories go, for some reason, one of the ones that gripped me the most is one of the simplest I ever encountered... Grandia. I only played it a few months ago, and despite it being fourteen years old, I got super excited every time I went someplace new. Nothing in gaming up to this point has made me literally drunk on euphoria than the entire Ship to the New World segment of the story, among other great parts. I know the cast isn't the most... badass, and that there are more than a few anachronisms and plot holes, but hey, this was a FF7 rival, so it's no surprise it should suffer some of the same flaws. In any case, if I had to add stories to this list, I'd personally add Grandia and Starcraft (the original). I've still got a long ways to go on my own personal list (still have maybe half a dozen more titles I want to churn through from the SNES and PSX before continuing on to the PS2 and more PC games. Maybe in a year I'll be able to make a more educated addition to this Top 7.
  • h4wkrapt0r - March 17, 2011 12:17 p.m.

    Havent played a good few of the games on the list, but wheres mercs? Mass effect? Starcraft(love the starcraft story, i do)? Ace combat (4 was best imo with 5 then zero)? And PORTAL?! Are you $%~*! serious?! The mystery was good for the time it lasted (60 mins max? - to figure it out). The ending song was class, but jeeze.... Prey was better imo, I just got bored of portal towards the end (ok boss battle was fun-ish) No zelda game?!
  • philipshaw - March 17, 2011 11:50 a.m.

    Great list and I would add ME2 and RDR to this list