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.
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
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
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.