Metal Gear Solid
Secret agent Solid Snake is yanked out of a well-earned retirement and sent to a remote island in Alaska, where a military black-ops team has gone rogue and seized a nuclear weapon. Once there, Snake meets a bunch of interesting people, snaps most of their necks and endures capture, torture and the company of a guy who pees his pants when ninjas menace him. He soon learns he's part of a government cloning project, and that his clone "brother" wants to use a giant, walking, nuclear-armed tank called Metal Gear to kill him. Moreover, some of his allies seem intent on betraying him, and there's no way to know whom to trust. Overcoming impossible odds, he ultimately saves the day (and the girl, if you're lucky) by accidentally infecting his brother with a lethal virus for which he was made an unwitting carrier. Snake is unaffected by the virus - but for how long?
Why it’s the Best:
A big part of what sets Metal Gear Solid and its sequels apart from other games is their moral ambiguity; while Snake is always on the right side of the law - or at least seems to be - the people he fights are almost never truly evil. Their motivations are complex, and more often than not, they're fighting on the "wrong" side because they're clued in to the monstrous, uncaring conspiracy that's operating behind the "good" guys.
Nowhere was this more true than in the first Metal Gear Solid. Each boss battle is a story in itself, and everyone you kill will deliver a strangely poignant monologue when you off them. One of the villains, Sniper Wolf, even has a weird romantic thing going on with Snake's new buddy, nerdy engineer Hal "Otacon" Emmerich - and her death at Snake's hands completely obliterates any notions Otacon had about the nobility of war. As the plot evolves - largely through "codec" radio conversations that drop in treatises on nuclear war and escalation of powers - you'll start to wonder if you're on the right side at all, thanks in part to several of your "allies" covertly manipulating you into doing their bidding the whole time.
Of course, all doubt about which side you're on goes out the window when you're captured and tortured by Revolver Ocelot, simultaneously one of the most likable and hateful villains in videogame history. He's a sadist, but he's also got a certain charm, and the broken-fourth-wall torture sequence ("Don't even think about using auto-fire, or I'll know!") remains one of the most memorable in the game - partly because something was actually riding on it. Fail to resist the torture, and the life of Snake's love interest, Meryl Silverburgh, is forfeit.
Then there's the eerie Psycho Mantis scene, in which the floating psychic reads your memory cards and moves your controller across the floor. And the strange appearances of the Ninja, a cyborg assassin who seems to know Snake. It all culminates in the final, inevitable confrontation between Solid and Liquid Snake, the latter of which refuses to die even when he's been blown up, beaten half to death and shot full of holes by a jeep-mounted machinegun. Gripping from start to finish, the first MGS still stands as the most compelling - and least confusing - entry in the series so far, and a damn good story to boot.
The Longest Journey
April Ryan is a typical college art student in Stark, a slightly-more-advanced-than-now sci-fi world (think flying cars, but no teleporters yet). Then she accidentally "shifts" in her sleep to Arcadia, a medieval fantasy world ruled by magic. She meets a white dragon who refers to her as "my child," gets chased off by a swirling black cloud called the Chaos Vortex, and wakes up back in Stark - but things just keep getting weirder. By the time April realizes Arcadia wasn't just a nightmare caused by too much curry, she's completely sucked in. So is the player.
It turns out, Stark and Arcadia are parallel worlds separated by a sort of cosmic barrier. However, the current guardian of that barrier is worn out, so the barrier is eroding and the two worlds are seeping into one another. And, while everyone knows this works for chocolate and peanut butter or gin and tonic, it's apparently very big time, super-bad news for parallel universes ruled by conflicting sets of the laws of reality, time and space. Especially when one of the two universes houses the physical incarnation of Chaos. Good to know.
Luckily - for the rest of the worlds, not necessarily for April - she's able to shift between the two worlds at will, and is expected to become the new Guardian. Homework isn't quite so important now, is it?
Why it's the Best:
Like most great stories, The Longest Journey begins with a captivating main character. April, like many of the best heroes and heroines, is likeable and relatable because she's a perfectly normal person, possessed of no superhuman strength, precognitive powers, or other amazingness. In fact, she spends a huge chunk of the game denying that any of this crazy stuff could happen to a girl like her, simply because she's so plain and typical.
Well, she's typical except for the whole shifting thing, which enables the game's storyline to range all over the place. Can't choose between sci-fi and fantasy? No problem. We have both here. April can zoom from a near-future college dive bar to a dragon's mermaid-guarded underwater lair and on to a space station and it all feels perfectly acceptable.
The juxtaposition of fantasy and science isn't just colorful; it's also useful. This is a point-and-click adventure game, so it's built around conversation and puzzles. And some of the best puzzles are when April uses a calculator or magnetic screwdriver to trick someone in Arcadia into thinking she's especially magical. And almost all of the puzzles are integrated into the story, driving things forward almost organically. This gives The Longest Journey exceptional pacing, with the puzzles rarely feeling like a hurdle intentionally placed to stretch the game's playtime.
Then again, when the story is this cosmic in scope and filled with interesting characters and villains, you don't necessarily need fluff. There are dragons and talking crows and robots. The risk is high - the fate of two worlds, if not the attached universes. The bad guys are really despicable - even the minor ones, like the slimeball who demands a date with April in exchange for information, then helps a bigger bad guy set a trap for April after the date goes badly. And April is just adorable, a regular girl determined not to let her normalcy get in the way of her saving reality as we know it.
But hey - don't listen to us. Check out ten minutes or so of the game yourself.
God of War
The game starts off with Kratos, the main character, committing suicide because he believes the gods have forsaken him. The rest of the game is a series of flashbacks from Kratos’ life that lead up to his death. Kratos trades his life to the god Ares in exchange for surviving a barbarian horde massacre. He is betrayed by Ares and tricked into killing his own wife and daughter. Kratos tries to absolve himself by serving other gods, slaying a hydra for Poseidon and defending Athens from Ares on behalf of Athena. Kratos gets his revenge by using Pandora’s Box to destroy Ares and obtain the Blade of the Gods; but it doesn’t relieve the pain of his memories, leading him to jump off a cliff. At the last moment, Athena intervenes and convinces Kratos to take up Ares’ place as the God of War.
Why it’s the Best:
Take three simple elements - revenge, Man vs God, sympathy - combined with a touch of Greek mythology and you’ve got a story that sticks with you. We see revenge stories a lot in videogames, so clearly the formula sells. But the added Man vs God element in God of War makes the boring “manly man doing manly things” style of gameplay that much more interesting than the next hack-‘n’-slash adventure. And seeing the gods and monsters of Greek myth rendered on the PS2 in all their glory - towering and terrible in a boss fight - makes the struggle feel so much more epic and so much more satisfying than a plain old romp with an RPG dragon.
See what we mean?
The simple story and compelling god hook is made all the more powerful by the main character. It’s true that Kratos isn’t likeable or even that complex - “RAWR - man-smash!” - but his tragic back story and total lack of joy add depth to his character. He put his trust entirely in the gods and what do they do? Abandon him to fate, trick him into killing his family (and make him relive it), or haul off and javelin him in the gut while he’s trying to make things right.
After watching our manly man go through all that, we want him to win - and we want him to live, even if he doesn’t want to himself. That’s the kind of sympathy God of War inspires and that’s Kratos’ ticket to one, two, three, FOUR games and possibly to a major motion picture.