Gather round the campfire...
Games are meant to be played, but ever since Space Invaders introduced the idea of narrative scenarios, the digital medium has recognized its potential for storytelling. Over time the writing has improved, better graphics have allowed for more interesting techniques, and every now and then a game pushed the boundaries of just how mature a story could be. By this point gaming is undeniably a storytelling medium, and weve experienced some incredible stories in our history of gaming.
We went over the last 30-plus years of releases to find the best written stories of all time. These narratives made us feel, made us think, and kept us glued to the screen until we reached the resolution. These games all told stories that only could be possible in a video game, and if we want this medium to keep evolving, then this is the perfect time to celebrate them.
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25. Final Fantasy VI
JRPGs were ahead of the pack when it came to quality game writing, and while later Final Fantasy titles improved the graphics, the plot never got better than in the sixth entry. FFVI tells a sprawling tale about the death of magic at the hands of unethical progress, and it has one of the biggest ensemble casts this side of War & Peace. It allows players to see any of a dozen characters as a fulfilling lead, and all would work in that context.
Moments like an impromptu opera performance, the discovery of hidden lineage, or a heroic sacrifice are sprinkled throughout the game, but its the bad guy that really steals the show. Kefka is one of the most detestable villains weve ever met, and the script does an amazing job of building up the heartless bastard. If FFVI is actually Kefkas tale, then its a well told one indeed.
24. Fallout 2
Many fantastic RPGs spawned from the 1990s, but few of them dared tackle the mature themes presented in Fallout 2. Sure, by now you've seen the whole post-apocalyptic survival scenario a dozen times by now, but in 1998, that was still pretty new territory. As The Chosen One, a descendant of the Vault Dweller from Fallout 1, it was your duty to travel the Wasteland in hopes of saving your dying home village.
Along the way, you'd meet dozens of characters, and how you handled those interactions had rippling effects into each new town you'd visit. There were slavers to deal with, a rise in prostitution to quell (or to help grow, if that was your thing), and an out-of-control drug problem crippled some economies entirely. And then you had to worry about the survival of mankind and overthrowing the corrupt remnants of a shadowy government to boot. It's heavy stuff, and Fallout 2 remains one of the most grim virtual experiences out there--even if its pop culture references got a touch out of hand.
23. L.A. Noire
The noir genre is about tough men, dangerous women, and the grit of reality, and the same goes for L.A. Noire. Youre dropped into the gumshoes of Cole Phelps, a beat cop with career advancement on his mind. After solving a series of surprisingly brutal street crimes, Phelps moves up the ranks of the 1950s L.A.P.D., taking on cases that are solved more often with conversation than a shootout.
L.A. Noires writing shines brightest in the interrogation room, a place where Cole does his best to get the truth out of suspects. The acting and advanced facial animations do a lot of the work, but the characterization and the resonant dialogue keep up their end of the bargain as players try to decide guilt. Fighting crime isnt glamorous, but thanks to smart scripting, L.A. Noire found some beauty in that ordinary world.
22. Planescape Torment
How would being immortal alter one's perception of the world, of life, or, indeed, one's very nature? That's the question posed by Planescape: Torment, an oldschool RPG set in D&D's Planescape multiverse renowned for its storytelling. The Nameless One--your character--has suffered many lifetimes' worth of anguish, unable to piece together his past. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why can he not die? You'll encounter many interesting characters during your quest to answer these questions, some of whom you'll grow to love, while the viewpoints of others may very well conflict with your own philosophies.
Planescape isn't so much an RPG about dungeon crawling and looting as it is interacting with the world and its characters. Every discussion, no matter how small, can turn into a branching series of dialogue, and every choice--no matter how insignificant it may seem--can lead to gut-wrenching consequences. Planescape may be dated by today's standards, but to pass it up would be a huge disservice to one of the greatest interactive tales ever conceived.
21. Alan Wake
You would expect great storytelling from a game that stars a novelist, and Alan Wakes tale delivers on that front. Taking inspiration from the best of Stephen King and David Lynch, Alan Wake sends a troubled writer and his wife to the Pacific Northwest, searching for peace, but only finding horror. The game does a great job of make the naturalistic world feel alien while Alan searches for his lost wife, running into any number of damaged people looking to do him harm.
Like any good novelist, Alan takes symbolism seriously, as he uses light to battle the shadows that want to consume himboth literally and figuratively. It gets even more interesting when floating words become his enemies. The actual prose you find in the game is proof enough of the quality writing, as is the excellent episodic pacing of how the plot unfolds. Alans never sure whats real or not, but he knows he loves his wife, and that might be enough to see him through.
Memory is a sticky bastard. Devious and deceiving, it warps reality in ways that have the appearance of truth, but are anything but. In no context is memory less reliable than that of love--especially when that love's gone very, very wrong. So how can you relive the past in a way that reveals reality as it actually was? Well, it helps if an undeniable truth is staring you in the face. Enter Braid, a devious and deceiving puzzle platformer from game auteur Jonathan Blow.
Through its clever and innovative fast-forward and rewind play mechanics, Braid unwinds a tale of forlorn love, yearning, frustration, unfulfilled passion--a broken heart. But does it? In the end, the game executes a twist for the ages, revealing that in actually you--the protagonist, the hero, the beset man--you are actually a lousy asshole. The princess, your lady love, needs a white knight for protection from you. Rare is the game that creates a situation where you must correctly interpret a situation you actively want to deny. Only through acceptance can you take in Braid's message. It's a good lesson to learn, really.
19. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
The intriguing world of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings takes you into a medieval fantasy that might not be what you'd expect from a land filled with elves, dwarves, and wizards. Non-humans are looked down upon, segregated, and abused by the human majority. Magic users are far from the Gandalf the Grey-type, instead acting as calculating, political schemers. Every decision you make in the game is morally grey, making your choices feel all the more realistic.
When the witcher gets framed for regicide, you must seek out the true killer to clear Geralt's name. Along the way, you'll hunt humongous monsters to earn extra cash, make deals with high-profile political figures, and even determine the course of an impending war. Branching story plots, character alliances, and the welfare of the local populations are greatly influenced by the choices you make, and will lead to completely different conclusions. Political intrigue, betrayals, and unexpected twists fill the plot, making the Witcher 2 a story that every gamer should experience.
18. Chrono Trigger
Its gutsy for a games story to spans millennium, let alone include a device as narratively troublesome as time travel, but Chrono Trigger makes it look easy. It starts simply at a town festival, but soon the unassuming Crono and his friends are thrown into a massive adventure where he makes friends with cavemen, cursed knights, and robots searching for humanity. And you find a way to connect to all of them.
The ever-shifting world Crono travels has much to teach about the human condition, showing that technology may change, but humans always have the same capacity for love, greed, devotion, hate, and honor no matter the era. And the storytellers knew when to create quiet moments to let the players get close enough to see some characters in a whole new light. Keeping tracks of timelines might be complicated, but the characters motivations never were.
17. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
GTA's rags-to-riches stories are always compelling, and San Andreas did it better than any of them. Over the course of the epic story, lead goes 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. 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.
But what really drives the game's story is its characters. Carl, for all his gang-banging thuggery, is the most moral character the series has produced. Carl's buddies, gang leaders Wu Zi Mu and Cesar, are genuinely likable, 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 in a wildly satisfying high-speed firefight at the very end.
16. Grim Fandango
Few video game plots confront the wild life changes that can occur in the span of four years. Fewer still can tie it all together with the same grace as Grim Fandango. It imagines the afterlife, called the Land of the Dead, as a purgatory not unlike our own world. It's got all the amenities of a 1940s, Noir-style metropolis, and has living skeletons working day jobs in place of people. Take our debonair protagonist Manny Calavera, for instance: He's a Grim Reaper that doubles as a travel agent, arranging the journey that fresh souls will take on their way to the peaceful Ninth Underworld.
Throughout your own four-year journey, you'll encounter a memorable cast of heroes and villains alike, all of whom will irrevocably impact Manny's passage through the Land of the Dead. Classic Noir tropes are everywhere--the femme fatale, the gaudy crime lord, the fact that smoking is the national pastime. But Grim Fandango also offers an originality all its own, blending Aztec mythology and Mexican culture into its gritty, art deco cityscape.
15. Hotline Miami
Who says ultra-violent video games can't have captivating stories? Hotline Miami gives purpose to all its gory mobster killing by taking us down an acid-soaked rabbit hole, all seen through the hazy eyes of our silent, unnamed protagonist (who fans have named Jacket, thanks to his trademark varsity duds). Jacket's day-to-day in 1989 Miami involves waking up, checking his answering machine to hear cryptic messages, then driving to shady mob hangouts to murder everyone in sight. And oh yeah--he always dons an animal mask before the killing starts.
Hotline Miami's plot thickens as you start to lose your grip on reality, eventually reaching a psychedelic viscosity akin to a cocaine-and-blood-based batter. Jacket's plagued by visions and nightmares, unsure if the instructions he's receiving are even real or who might be manipulating him. And even after the credits roll, the story's not over--not by a long shot.
14. Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic
With power hungry Sith Lords, rag-tag group of heros, and a bucket-of-bolts spacecraft, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has all of the elements to build an immersive Star Wars experience. But what bumps the game's story to one of the best in video games is its ability to suck you into the new environment, allow you to explore rewarding backstories of the fascinating side characters, and surprise you with twists that rival the "I am your father" moments of the movie trilogy.
As an average crewman in the Republic Fleet, you're tasked with finding the captured Jedi VIP, Bastila Shan, on the city-planet of Taris, which launches you on a quest that spans the galaxy. You'll visit Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine, the Wookie planet Kashyyyk, the Sith planet Korriban, and other locales that take you deeper into the Star Wars lore than any movie or game has ever done before. Bioware's classic definitely deserves a spot as one of the best video game stories of all time.
13. Spec Ops: The Line
Military shooters don't often rank high on the narrative front, usually favoring gung-ho G.I. Joe antics and flag waving over character development. And, at first, Spec Ops: The Line falls right in line with that stereotype--you take control of Walker, a soldier sent into a sandstorm-ruined Dubai to find a missing general. But as time goes on it becomes more and more obvious that there's something more devious afoot, and the shooter's story transforms from run-of-the-mill to one-of-a-kind.
What unfolds is a damning criticism of shooters themselves, questioning everything that gamers have grown accustom to. Walker's journey sends him marching into the nucleus of the genre, playing with the storytelling in ways no other game has. By the end you might feel anger or sadness, but the important thing is that you'll feel something, and that's pretty rare in military shooters.
12. Assassin's Creed 2
How often does a games story its actual, core narrative hold your attention for 25 hours? Assassins Creed 2, which tells the life-story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, is one of those rare games. It confidently introduces you to the cheeky Italian when hes a young man, scrapping in the street and climbing into his girlfriends bed via the balcony. Then it shatters his world, leaving you to rebuild and revenge over the course of a life, all within the beautiful surroundings of Renaissance Italy.
The fact that it takes place in a computer simulation (based on historical memory) adds a delicious extra layer to the plot, and provides handy background information on pretty much everything in the game. The sci-fi ending and hidden video leaves you with a simultaneous feeling of insignificance (the purpose of Ezios entire life was to deliver a single message) and awe at the potential for the series overarching plot. Which Ubisoft then over-complicate in subsequent games. Ho hum.
11. BioShock Infinite
After taking gaming subject matter to new heights, game creator Ken Levines next title after BioShock had huge expectations, all of which BioShock Infinite was prepared to meet. The impossibly floating world of Columbia is a cutting critique on the perils of American exceptionalism, but Booker DeWitt is only after Elizabeth, the special girl he must abduct if he wants to be free of his debt. However, just as the Infinite in the title implies, the plot is far bigger than that.
Infinite approaches so many important subjects--racism, socialism, colonialismbut in the end it all comes back the demons in Bookers past. Like monstrous Songbird and the comical Lutece twins, Bookers choices come back to haunt him again and again, but Elizabeths reality warping powers might finally give him the chance to make things right. BioShock was about choice, Infinite was about fate, and both gave us a lot to think about when they were over.
10. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
The Metal Gear games have often been trailblazers when it comes to writing in games, but many of the franchises best scripts are complicated by copious twists and conspiracies. Metal Gear Solid 3 sidesteps all that by going to the sagas start, which makes Snakes story far more personal this time around. MGS3 still had the type of betrayals and shocking reveals youd expect from a James Bond-infused, Cold War setting, but those moments worked on a human level.
Not to say MGS3 didnt take on heady subjects like the nature of war, loyalty, and duty. The plot addressed all those things without getting bogged down in sci-fi B.S. like nanomachines. And the emotionally resonant script made room for some of the best boss characters and action setpieces MGS ever had. Its all built around the complex relationship of Naked Snake and Boss, one of the strongest weve seen in gaming, which we salute as proudly as Snake does at the games close.
9. Mass Effect 2
Assemble a rag-tag crew, achieve the impossible, save the galaxy. Its hardly original sci-fi, nor is it particularly smart, but Mass Effect 2 taps into one of the all time classic adventure stories: uneasy allies versus overwhelming odds. Its Kurosawas Seven Samurai played out in space, replacing the bandits with ancient, titanic machines. Its every bit as punch-the-air satisfying when Shepard and friends smash through the games suicide mission climax.
Few other games make you feel so close to the supporting cast, either. Each crew member has a deep back-story, and most ask you to make complex decisions to help them out, potentially souring your friendship with another character. When/if you lose one of them during the suicide mission you feel genuine remorse--a great indicator that Mass Effect 2s story has left a lasting impression on you.
8. To The Moon
To the Moon proves that a game doesn't need convincing voice acting, fancy polygons, and an orchestral score to make grown men cry. The score did help though, but the sad notes are a heartbreaking reminder of the tale about a dying man with one last wish: to go to the moon. The story follows two doctors who are trying to fulfill the Johnny's wish using technology that creates artificial permanent memories. In order to do so, they need to hop through his memories and implant the desire to go to the moon in his childhood so that he creates a new life in his mind.
Along the way we learn about River, his now deceased wife, and it's hard not to get teary-eyed when the doctors go through their happy memories together. Or, if you want to be sadder sooner, just listen to this.
7. Portal 2
After Portal's brilliant, minimalist narrative introduced gamers to the silent Chell and the decidedly less silent GLaDOS, Valve had its work cut out for it. How could a stunning short story be followed up with a full, retail release? Could new characters really stand toe-to-toe with GLaDOS? The answer, astoundingly, was yes. All of the new characters added character to the world, from the curious Wheatley to the amazingly charismatic Cave Johnson.
We were worried at first that we'd seen all there was to see from Aperture, but that simply wasn't true. Exploring the depths of the facility introduced us to new bits of lore, fleshing out the most important character in the series: the facility itself. Learning Aperture's backstory and finding out about GLaDOS's history was surprisingly touching. Chell's story, too, ended up concluding well, turning the relatively quaint story of the original into a saga as epic as nearly any other.
6. Red Dead Redemption
Some of the greatest film Westerns deal with the death of the Old West, and Red Dead Redemption strikes gold exploring that subject. Protagonist John Marston is a man out of time. He wants a steady home life, but is pushed back into the saddle by government agents that hate his outlaw past. Marston has to hunt down his old posse of bandits, effectively killing off the last remnants of the era that defined him.
And its not just Marston and his former friends that have trouble transitioning into the 20th century. Over and over John meets individuals coming to terms with the end of the West, whether happily or through gritted teeth. Marston himself wants to leave his past behind despite being so good with his revolver, which makes him easier to connect with than every previous Rockstar hero. The ultimate question is: will the world allow him the happy ending he deserves?
5. Persona 4
Persona 4s greatest strength comes from pacing. The life of the protagonist plays out one day at a time for an entire year in the quiet town of Inaba. You dig deep into a murder mystery while also attending high school, working part time jobs, and (most importantly) bonding with your new friends. You may enter a shadowy world of dungeons and monsters, but you become so attached to your new friends that a small moment in the park with one of them has more impact than most boss battle.
Persona 4s tale takes more than 80 hours to experience, but it never feels drawn out as every day is a new chance to get closer to your friends. Characters like Teddy, Kanji, and Chie are well-defined by scenes that shift between comedy and drama fluidly, and you express your unique feelings for them through the expansive dialogue choices. When the story reaches its satisfying climax, you feel like youve gone through a life-changing ordeal with your best friends. When the game ultimately ends, its hard not to shed tears for all youre saying goodbye to.
4. The Last of Us
Where most tales of this type are made of good guys, bad guys, heroic challenges and redemptive resolutions, The Last of Us has none of these things. Instead, it has reality. Protagonist Joel is no hero. Neither are his friends. No one at the start of the game is even particularly likeable. Theyre just broken people trying to survive a broken world by any means necessary. The eventual change in Joel is a gradual one, forged by the immaculately subtle evolution of his relationship with Ellie, as well as the various pockets of humanity and brutality (both of which are experienced in uncompromising extremes) discovered along their journey.
Through delicate, fragile interactions with each other, most often subtly supported by gameplay, both characters change and evolve almost imperceptibly, they and their relationship becoming completely unrecognisable by the end of the game. Their story comes with no clean morality or neat solutions. But that is exactly why youll care, and ultimate be more affected by The Last of Us than any other action game. Epic, apocalyptic scenario, small, intimate human story. Thats why it works, and thats why it will stay with you.
3. The Walking Dead
An intense, emotional ride until the very end, The Walking Dead was our game of the year in 2012 because of its gut-wrenching story. Lee Everett, a man on his way to prison, plays the unlikely hero who stumbles upon Clementine, a young girl whose parents were vacationing in another city when the zombie apocalypse happened. Their unexpected journey takes them to Savannah, where her parents should be, and along the way you meet a cast of characters that you grow to love (or hate with a burning passion). It's okay though, because there are instances when your choices affect their chances of staying in your group.
The game's strengths are its dialogue and character development, and it's impossible not to feel sad, guilty, or angry whenever Clementine witnesses or experiences anything horrible. It's a given that when the dead start walking that there will be gruesome scenes, but the pacing, the execution of each scenario made The Walking Dead stand out.
Would you kindly... recognize Irrational Games' BioShock as the second best story to be found in games? Ha, that's a trick. You've actually had your free will stripped by Andrew Ryan, mastermind of the utopian-cum-dystopian underwater city Rapture, so yes, you certainly will recognize the greatness of BioShock. This is a very exciting day, for you. Released in 2007, BioShock reoriented the conversation of whether games could achieve a higher purpose beyond headshots, warlocks, and Italian plumbers-- yes, games have artistic merit.
The game did so through its repurposing of Ayn Rand's objectivist allegory, Atlas Shrugged. However, whereas Rand's diatribe against socialism leads to a perfect world built by the perfect man, John Galt, game director Ken Levine unspooled a tale that lays bear the hubris of Man. Andrew Ryan, in believing that he had found The Way, in actuality created a society fueled by hedonistic vanity, unchecked ambition, and extreme moral ambiguity. It was delicious in its depravity, and the utter corruption of the city was revealed beautifully through innovative narrative devices, such as the audio-logs strewn about levels. Yes, BioShock's ending felt too predictable, but the game's ultimate contribution to game stories can not be denied.
1. Silent Hill 2
Theres a sinister genius to the story-telling in Silent Hill 2. It starts off as a mysterious love story--James Sunderland is searching for his wife after receiving a letter from her one year after her death--and ends up as something far darker and more complex.
Silent Hill 2 tells its intricate story on multiple levels. While its spoken narrative leaves you in little doubt about what kind of man James Sunderland is, the way you play and interact with the world also has a bearing. Spend the game at half health (or lower) for example, and youll get a different ending because your lack of regard for his health tells the game that you think James is suicidal. Symbolism also plays a big role--every disgusting creature in the game is a manifestation of James twisted psyche; physical representations of his sexual hang-ups and guilt. By the end, youll have lost every shred of empathy you had with the games protagonist--how many modern games are ballsy enough to let you play as the real monster?
Think you can write something better?
Those are our picks for the best stories in gaming history, and we're sure you couldn't possibly disagree with them. So if you'd like to tell us how right all our choices were, let us know in the comments below!