ClassicRadar: The Best Videogame Stories Ever

Metal Gear Solid

(PlayStation/PC, 1998)

The Story:
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

(PC, 2000)

The Story:
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

(PS2, 2005)

The Story:
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.

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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

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