Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
The story changes depending on the choices the player makes throughout the game - gender, class, good/evil, etc. - but the “canon” play-through still makes for a good story and many of the main plot points remain the same.
You start out as one of the few survivors of a botched mission run by Jedi badass Bastila Shan with no memory of who you are or what you were doing on her starship. You fall in with one of the good guys, who’s out to save Bastila after her escape pod crash lands somewhere on a Sith-controlled planet. Bastila is captured and handed over to the Sith lord Darth Malak, the evil badass who overthrew his own Sith master, Revan, for a chance to destroy the Jedi. Through events of the game - played either as a good guy or an evil one - the quest to get a hold of Bastila morphs into a quest to find star maps that will lead the player to the Star Forge, a battle station that will decide the outcome of the Jedi vs Sith conflict.
A little more than halfway through the game, a major plot twist is revealed: you are Revan… or you were until your prick of a team-killing apprentice Malak offed you. With this newfound knowledge, players have an even greater incentive to destroy Malak, regardless of whether they’re playing as a goody-two-shoes or the ultimate bastard. Then Bastila turns to the Dark Side - despite being the hoity-toity good-girl Jedi - and the player has a whole new set of plot points to navigate through to one of the game’s multiple conclusions.
Why it’s the Best:
Knights of the Old Republic has a lot to offer in the way of a good story - setting, plot, characters, a killer climax - to name a few elements. Developer BioWare had a leg up in setting on the count of borrowing almost everything from the Star Wars canon - but they did go the extra mile to make their own fan fiction and make it work for Star Wars. So even if you can bring yourself to dispute our claims that the climax is awesome and the characters were compelling, you can’t deny that this game felt like Star Wars in a way that Jedi Knight and Shadows of the Empire never did.
KOTOR is filled with interesting and talkative characters but the most compelling one in the whole story is you. In other games, your character is made for you - even if they do let you pick out the color of your hair and let you name yourself Pr1ncess McWh00pass. But KOTOR gave the player real choices that had real effects on the story. From being a girl to being totally evil, to making a Wookie kill his Twi’lek best friend, KOTOR’s story never ignored your choices. Instead they stretched the linear events to accommodate whatever you came up with and it made you, the main character - and the plot - that much more interesting.
Now the plot doesn’t sound like anything special: galaxy in turmoil, kidnapped chick, huge weapon, stuff happens. But when you actually sit down to play the game, the pace of the story keeps things from feeling like an endless grind and you will willingly suffer through side quests just to find out what happens next. Then comes the plot twist: you are/were/are going to be again the baddest of bad guys in the galaxy. Even if you had been playing as the perfect paragon of Jedi goodness until that point, the great reveal gives you pause. First you experience a barrage of philosophical questions: what makes a man evil; can evil be unlearned; etc.
And then you find yourself asking: “Wait, am I supposed to be evil? Have I been playing the game wrong?”
It’s a funny thing to see an entire generation of gamers grow up in one moment. That moment came when we poor souls who were conditioned to follow where a game led us stopped dead in our button mashing and realized that, no, we hadn’t been playing KOTOR wrong; we had a choice in the story. And whatever we chose, it would be effin’ awesome.
So of course KOTOR makes our list of best game stories - because it was our story, whoever we were when we played it on whatever path we chose to take.
Astro Boy: Omega Factor
Astro Boy is a cute, super-powerful robot with no memory of his past. Guided by a kindly old scientist, he takes down a theft ring, witnesses the assassination of the first robot president of Antarctica - and then, he's suddenly transported tens of thousands of years into the past to battle for an ancient civilization. Then things get weird. Astro comes back to the "present" five years after the assassination, where a robot-human war has destroyed 80 percent of Earth. He defeats the robot revolutionaries, but just then a giant robot space-skull shows up and blasts Earth to a cinder. Roll credits.
After the credits, Astro is resurrected, given the ability to transcend time and retraces his steps with full knowledge of what's going to happen. Ultimately, he becomes a robotic Christ figure, sacrificing himself to save everyone else before being given a third chance at life.
Why it’s the Best:
Yeah, we know: licensed games suck, and Astro Boy isn't an original story. But hear us out: Omega Factor is fantastic, and while it's tied to the 2003 Astro Boy cartoon series, it's not actually based on it. Instead, developers Treasure and Hitmaker decided to create a completely new storyline that brought together what seemed like every character ever dreamed up by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka. Omega Factor was much darker and more involving than anything we'd ever associate with kid-friendly Astro Boy; over the course of the game, Astro witnesses human and robot genocides, a violent assassination and a flaming apocalypse at the hands of a floating skull with creepy theme music. At the same time, the game is filled with moments of sweetness - enemies become allies, Astro reconciles with his seemingly evil "father" and, ultimately, nobody is beyond redemption. Not even Astro's rival Atlas, who shows up repeatedly to try and kill him, or Sharaku, the three-eyed, time-traveling prince whose scheming causes the apocalypse in the first place.
The "transcending time" gimmick also makes the game a lot more interesting, as it enables you to reshape events by revisiting them repeatedly. In one timeline, Rag, the robot president we mentioned earlier, is assassinated; in another he's denied office and becomes the revolutionary leader Blue Knight. It's all about watching the repercussions of your latest set of actions, and then figuring out how much closer you are to setting things right and averting horror.
If nothing else, the game's writers deserve recognition for finding a fun way to essentially force players through the same levels multiple times, thereby padding out the run time. It's so satisfying to watch Astro surprise everyone with his knowledge of their plans and deceptions, you'll barely even notice that you're on your fourth trip through the moonbase level.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Carl "C.J." Johnson is a small-time crook and former gang member who returns home to Los Santos after his mother is murdered - only to be immediately harassed by his old nemesis, an outrageously corrupt cop named Officer Tenpenny. Over the course of this epic, which spans an entire state and three major cities, Carl takes his gang back to supremacy in Los Santos, only to be knocked back down by Tenpenny and a few of his own backstabbing "friends." Carl then falls in with wannabe rappers, his old gang, a blind Triad boss and a crazed CIA spook played by James Woods. Over the course of his adventure, he'll learn to sneak like a thief, fly planes, romance women and get really buff. And then, one by one, he'll get revenge on the people who betrayed him, ultimately taking down Tenpenny himself.
Why it’s the Best:
GTA's rags-to-riches stories are always compelling, and San Andreas did it better than any of them - over the course of this epic, Carl will have gone from a penniless thug to one of San Andreas' most respected citizens, ultimately becoming a wealthy mogul with a house in the game's equivalent of the Hollywood hills. And the scope of the missions he'll take on will become similarly ridiculous; you might start out beating up thugs in a neglected Los Santos neighborhood, but by game's end you'll be hijacking VTOL jets off of aircraft carriers, knocking over casinos in daring heists and infiltrating an Area 51 analogue to steal a jetpack. Somewhere along the way, it's got something for everyone, with a gangsta fantasy that's far more epic, accessible and far-reaching than most of what the hip-hop industry has come up with.
But what really drives the game's story is its characters, and while it's easy to dismiss them as ethnic stereotypes, they're really much more than that. Carl, for all his gang-banging thuggery, is the most moral character the series has produced so far. He comes off like a decent person in his interactions with others, he's a pushover when it comes to doing favors for friends and he's dedicated to the idea of keeping drugs out of his neighborhood. Carl's buddies, gang leaders Wu Zi Mu and Cesar, are genuinely likable and fun to watch, and James Woods' acerbic Mike Toreno steals every scene he's in. Meanwhile, Tenpenny - voiced by Samuel L. Jackson - is so cartoonishly and irredeemably evil, it's impossible not to want to see him get his comeuppance - which happens in a wildly satisfying high-speed firefight at the very end.