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ClassicRadar: The Best Videogame Stories Ever

BioShock

(360/PC, 2007)

The Story:
In the 1940s, driven by a need to escape societal, political and religious authority, the entrepreneur Andrew Ryan built a utopian metropolis under the sea and invited like-minded citizens to join him there. In the end, however, he gave his community too much freedom. Rampant commercialism led to crime, class systems and eventually civil war. Unchecked scientific experimentation led to a decimated population of genetic freaks, corpse-harvesting little girls and brainwashed super cyborgs. By 1960, although the city of Rapture is in abandoned ruins, four powerful personalities are still vying for control: Ryan, the founder; Atlas, the opposition leader; Fontaine, the supposedly dead mafia lord; and Tennenbaum, the doctor responsible for many of the people's mutations.

Why it’s the Best:
Ryan, Atlas, Fontaine and Tennenbaum are remarkably academic characters for a videogame; their psychologies and philosophies manage to reference everything from Ayn Rand and George Orwell to Walt Disney and Keyser Soze. One could teach a graduate class on the various influences and archetypes at play in BioShock. There is seriously heady, mind-warping stuff here.

What is brilliant about the story, though, is that these four dominant forces are not the most memorable or important characters. Despite appearing on dozens of billboards and blabbering away in dozens of radio messages, they are completely eclipsed by the real stars of BioShock... stars who are almost impossible to put a face to.

The first is Rapture itself. The city is so fully realized and so dense with detail that it becomes not only a unique personality, but also a narrator of its own sad tale. You don’t need anyone to tell you what has happened here... the environment speaks silent volumes. Garish and extravagant entertainment districts now flooded with dirty water. Posters that advertise genetic upgrades as if they were fashionable new hats. Majestic and living trees trapped in man-made glass tubes. You know exactly what to expect from the crazy surgeon at the end of the first level because you've already seen his bloody handiwork splattered all over the walls. You suspect Atlas before he betrays you because of the visual foreshadowing his creepy pamphlets provide.

The second star is... you, the game's protagonist. What's so surprising about that? Mute, unseen heroes are a dime a dozen, especially in first person shooters. Their transparency allows players to believe that they are the real heroes. The formula is tried, true and familiar.

But BioShock flips that equation upside down, and then shakes it around until it feels nauseous. As soon as you've placed yourself comfortably inside the hero's shoes, the game reveals a disturbing twist - you are no generic Everyman. You are a mentally programmed errand boy, specifically created and trained to do whatever your evil master demands, including murder. And when you, the player, try to distance yourself from this squirm-inducing new back story, you can't... because, minus the "evil" part, how is that description any different than what you do in all first person shooters?



Planescape: Torment

(PC, 1999) 

The Story: 
Planescape: Torment is the story of the Nameless One, who wakes up on an embalming table with no memories and stripped of possessions. You'll discover that you have been living for thousands of years, and each time you die you wake up healed but with complete amnesia. Rather than being a typical dashing young hero, your body is covered in tattoos and scars - many that should have been fatal - that have been accumulated over many lifetimes.

Through deranged clues left behind by your previous incarnations you'll figure out that in your first life you committed an act of such unforgivable evil that true death would doom you to an eternity fighting the Blood War. Eventually, in the climactic end of the game, you battle your own mortality.

Why it’s the Best: 
You won't find any elves or dwarves shooting fireballs and crossing +4 daggers in an enchanted forest, despite the fact that Planescape: Torment is part of the D&D universe. Instead, you'll explore a unique and creative setting on par with a high fantasy novel. The game's script is over 800,000 words according to a 1994 estimate from PC Gamer UK and the amount of writing serves the player by enriching the 2D settings with intricate descriptions and creating characters and dialogue that remain memorable for years.

The most remarkable city, Sigil (where you begin), is a city made up of physical places shaped by its inhabitants' thoughts. The city is famous for its portals, which are invisible until you happen upon them with the correct key. A key can be a word or gesture, or the knuckle or a skeleton or particular thought. You'll use them to travel across streets and across dimensions. Every location is delightfully clever as you go from the first layer of hell, mazes trapped between planes of existence to a pregnant alleyway in Sigil, which you have to induce into labor before the way forward will be made open.

Your companions are also an unusual bunch. Morte your longtime friend and first cohort, is a talking, floating skull who equips different sets of teeth as weapons. He also frequently spouts out his memorable brand of know-it-all sarcasm, like, “We should get some female zombies to join our party, right chief?" A succubus, pyromaniac mage, Nordom from Modron and a suit of armor are some of the other companions you can travel with. Every one is memorable and unique, although several are easy to play through the game without ever meeting.

You won't get everything out of Planescape: Torment on the first time through, but you'll want to know each of the NPCs and find every location because they're genuinely interesting - not because of a compulsion for getting 100 percent completion or a need to find the best equipment. We love this game because of the quality and detail put into it, and years after finishing the game we still think about the riddle that tortures the Nameless One throughout the game: "What can change the nature of a man?"


Grim Fandango

(PC, 1998)

The Story:
In the world of Grim Fandango, death is just the beginning of a very long journey into the afterlife. Nice folks get a lickety-split train ticket that gets them to the afterlife in only four minutes. Some take a boat, or drive. The worst sinners have to go on foot, a journey which takes four years - maybe even longer if you have to stop and get a job for awhile. As Manny Calavera, you're a Grim Reaper - one of the travel agents who help people on that journey. And you've got some rough years ahead of you.

See, Manny's boss gives him all the least profitable clients, so he steals one - Mercedes "Meche" Colomar, from a rival agent. When she gets sent on the four-year trek, he wonders why she didn't have a ticket for the train, and investigates. It turns out, his crooked boss has been saving up the train tickets and selling them to a gangster. Manny and his demon buddy Glottis, a speed-obsessed auto mechanic, set out to save Meche, and pay tribute to pretty much every great film noir movie ever made.

Why it's the Best:
Imagine an old black and white movie, with Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat and fedora chain-smoking, set in a world packed with dames and pencil-thin moustaches and secrets and double-crosses. Now imagine that everyone in the film is already dead and looks like either a skeleton or a demon, and most have Mexican accents.

Give it a cheer-worthy everyman for a main character, a beautiful damsel in distress for him to pine for, and some truly evil villains. Now throw in guns that kill you by making you "sprout" flowers, flaming beavers, and a big orange sidekick who's dumb as a shoe but loyal as a puppy and who loves to drive really fast. Oh wait, there's more...

The point is, you've never played a game with an atmosphere and style like Grim Fandango. It's completely unique, a mix of Hollywood's film noir classics like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, and a sitcom written by a mad genius. No other game finds you searching the forest for a character's actual heart, which he's thrown away in a fit of disappointment, or using a ship's anchor to rip an entire ocean liner in half rather than finding a way to just open the door. And we've never played a game in which it was necessary to get your best friend to vomit, then spray the resulting glop with liquid nitrogen.

All the while, the dialogue is snappy and humorous, perfectly drawing you into the characters. Most games with a setting like this would constantly make self-references, coming just short of screaming, "Hey, look! Isn't this odd and crazy!?" But Manny, down-on-his-luck hero that he is - is the ultimate straight man, content to ironically comment upon the craziness around him and move on. And you'll never find another companion as dim-witted, yet faithful and innocent as Glottis - or as lovable as a result.

Plus, most importantly, the game never forgets that it's essentially a love story between Manny and Meche, and that old-school romance and panache is still very much in effect, even if everything else in the world is crazy.

So there you have it: a truly unique setting that enables a completely creative plot, dialogue that's probably more funny and clever than any movie you've seen in the last decade, and a romantic story with characters you simply have to cheer for. We would say that's all it takes to have one of the best stories of all time, but the truth is that's a whole heck of a lot.

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53 comments

  • 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

Showing 1-20 of 53 comments

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