10. Half-Life 2
Platform(s): Xbox One and PC
Nearly 14 years later and we’re still waiting for the conclusion to Half-Life 2’s story, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best sci-fi narratives, like, ever. Set some years after the vents of the first game, Half-Life 2 sees Gordon Freeman (and his trusty crowbar) team up with Eli and Alyx Vance to fight off the Combine; a technologically superior multidimensional empire that managed to conquer Earth in just seven hours. Unlike the original game though, you have no idea what’s been going on or what’s about to happen, making the story all the more powerful because you’re in the same situation as Gordon himself. Throughout the game, the set-pieces, story developments and action-escalation are all carefully constructed to give you a sense of empowerment but also weave one of the best narratives in sci-fi as a whole. It’s your story as much as Gordon’s, and the fact that there’s not a cutscene in sight only heightens that.
9. Red Dead Redemption
Developer: Rockstar Games
Platform(s): PS3 and Xbox 360.
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 who hold his outlaw past over his head. Marston has to hunt down his old posse of bandits, effectively killing off the last remnants of the era that defined him. And it’s 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?
8. Persona 4
Platform(s): PS3, PS2 and PS Vita.
Persona 4’s 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 companions that a small moment in the park with one of them has more impact than most intense boss battle. Persona 4’s 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 you’ve gone through a life-changing ordeal with your best friends. When the game ultimately ends, it’s hard not to shed tears for all you’re saying goodbye to.
7. Telltale's The Walking Dead
Developer: Telltale Games
Platform(s): PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS Vita, PSP, PC, Linux, iOS and Android.
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 who 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.
6. The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform(s): PS3 and PS4.
Where most tales of this type are made of good guys and 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. They’re 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 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. Yet by the end of the game, they and their relationship are completely unrecognisable. Their story comes with no neatly gift-wrapped solutions. But that is exactly why you’ll care, and ultimately be more affected by The Last of Us than any other action game. Epic and apocalyptic scenario, small and intimate human story. That’s why it works, and that’s why it will stay with you.
5. What Remains of Edith Finch
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC and Mac
It’s hard to tell you exactly why What Remains of Edith Finch’s story is so utterly amazing without ruining it entirely, but that’s part of its charm. The less you know about What Remains of Edith Finch the better. Set aside a Sunday afternoon and play it through in one sitting, and, trust us, you won’t regret it. What we can tell you is that it’s a collection of strange stories about what happened to members of one family. Each one is told using a different gameplay style and the way they play out is as inventive as the stories themselves. This is interactive storytelling at its finest.
4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Look out, Nilfgaardians: Geralt is back in town. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt takes our gravel-voiced hero on a search for Ciri, his young ward who has attracted the malevolent interest of the Hunt. This whole game world draws its inspirations from Eastern Europe, giving it a different flavor than the average fantasy RPG. But The Witcher 3 transcends expectations for the genre left and right. The characters are fully-realized and relatable, and their interactions have nuance. The writing is head and shoulders above the average script. The game systems are impeccably executed and help to further the story. And where most games only have binary good-or-bad ethical rules, this series has always been most comfortable exploring the morally murky areas. The core game of Wild Hunt was a masterclass of storytelling, but the addition of the Blood & Wine DLC took the game’s narrative to the next level.
Developer: 2K Boston (later Irrational Games)
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Mac.
Would you kindly... recognize the continued legacy of Irrational Games' BioShock? Ha, that's a trick question. 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. 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, game director Ken Levine unspooled a tale that lays bare the hubris of Man. Andrew Ryan, in believing that he had found The Way, in actuality created a society fuelled 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 cannot be denied.
2. Her Story
Developer: Sam Barlow
Platform(s): Android, iOS, PC, Mac and Linux.
It’s clear from the very beginning that Her Story is about finding a killer. But as you watch more clips of testimony from the prime suspect, you realize that there’s more afoot than just murder most foul. Her Story was an indie game darling of 2015, and quite frankly, the praise and accolades are totally deserved. It’s another game that tells its tale through player choice, but those decisions are more than just selections on a dialogue wheel. Each person who plays Her Story will experience the plot differently, because it’s entirely told in short videos that you find by searching keywords in a database of police evidence. Depending on what queries you make, you might be able to tease out different holes in the alibi given by the suspect. That guides your next search, and so every player charts their own path to finding out the truth. The narrative is plenty compelling when you watch the clips in order (thanks, YouTube!), but the circuitous path Her Story sets you on makes it one of the best examples of how a game can tell a story.
1. Silent Hill 2
Developer: Team Silent
Platform(s): PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360 and PC.
There’s a sinister genius to the storytelling 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. It ends up as something far darker and more complex. Silent Hill 2 tells its intricate story on multiple levels. While the 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 impact. Spend the game at half health (or lower) for example, and you’ll 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, you’ll have lost every shred of empathy you had with the game’s protagonist. How often do you get to play an entire horror game before discovering you’re the real monster?