There are two types of gamer in the world: people who play for scores, and those that play for the story. The best video game stories can have even more impact than a film or book when they’re done well, and that’s precisely because you're part of it. It might have taken the medium decades to get there, but finally the very best stories in video games can compete with Hollywood movies.
Whether dealing with emotionally-open indies or AAA games that know how to masterfully sympathise with their main character, there are countless reasons why we so readily want to keep our virtual heroes alive. Buckle up: these are the greatest (virtual) stories ever told.
30. Batman: Arkham Knight
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
The original Arkham Asylum may be more beloved, but this is handily the best story Rocksteady has ever told. Whatever you think of the studio’s take on the Batmobile, this is a truly compelling Dark Knight tale. Breaking down the relationship between Bats and the Joker in consistently inventive ways, Batman: Arkham Knight makes you question not only your own sanity, but who out of the Caped Crusader and the Prince of Knaves is actually the good guy. Considering one of those two characters starts the game in a furnace, it’s remarkable just how much fresh juice Rocksteady squeezes out of the greatest rivalry in superhero history.
29. Final Fantasy 6
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: SNES, PSOne, Game Boy Advance, Android and iOS
While later Final Fantasy titles improved the graphics, the plot never got better than in the sixth entry. Final Fantasy 6 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 it’s the bad guy that really steals the show. Kefka is one of the most detestable villains we’ve ever met, and the script does an amazing job of building up the heartless bastard. If Final Fantasy 6 is actually Kefka’s tale, then it’s a well-told one indeed.
Developer: Toby Fox
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita, PC, Linux and Mac.
Undertale is a weird, weird game. There are monsters and goat-people and magic. But there’s also a touching exercise in empathy (or the lack thereof). It’s a challenge to condense the very strange story into one or two lines, but the most important thing to know about Undertale is that, beneath its peculiar, scrappy surface, its heart is made of pure sweetness. One of the most powerful abilities in video game story-telling is how the player’s actions can impact the narrative. Some games have used that amount of self-directed choice to reach for profundity, only to fall short. Undertale stands out for its many alternate endings, each of which manages to pack an emotional punch.
27. Chrono Trigger
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: SNES, PSOne, PS3, Wii, Nintendo DS, PSP, Android and iOS.
Time travel doesn’t have the best track record as a narrative tool. In Chrono Trigger, though, the device shines as a source of storytelling finesse. The game starts simply enough 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 Chrono travels has much to teach about the human condition.
Technology may change, but people 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 track of timelines might be complicated, but the characters’ motivations never were.
26. GTA 5
Developer: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PS3, PS4, PS5, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
The most subversive story Rockstar has ever told in GTA is also the series’ best. GTA 5 is really hard to pigeonhole. At times it’s a wisecracking take on Michael Mann’s Heat – those headline scores are incredible. Most of the time though, this Los Santos yarn is way too hard to pin down… and that’s a compliment. Thanks to its innovative character-swapping gameplay, GTA 5 lets you live three very distinct lives over the course of a single campaign.
Such is the quality of the voice acting and mission structure, you’ll find yourself subconsciously role-playing whoever you think Franklin and co. should be. Presented as miserable and remorseful, Michael isn’t the guy you do drive-by shootouts with. Ditto Franklin. Knowing and loyal, you want to actively limit the damage you do when the game puts you in the role of the young carjacker. And that’s the genius of Trevor. A fully-fledged psychopath, played with wonderful glee by Steven Ogg, GTA finally has a vehicle for its frenzied bloodbaths in the form of an unrepentant character who couldn’t care less about ludonarrative dissonance.
25. Grim Fandango
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita, Android, iOS, PC, Mac and Linux.
Grim Fandango isn’t the new kid on the block any more, but it still stands the test of time as a brilliant and unique game creation. It imagines the afterlife as a purgatory not unlike our own world. Take our debonair protagonist Manny Calavera, for instance: he's a Grim Reaper who doubles as a travel agent, arranging the journey that fresh souls will take on their way to the peaceful Ninth Underworld.
Throughout your 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 film 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, thanks to its inspirations from Aztec mythology and Mexican culture.
24. Gone Home
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and Mac
For a game with no other characters in it aside from the possessions they left behind in the house, it’s astonishing just how good Gone Home’s storyline is. You play as a young girl returning home after a long semester abroad. She’s expecting to be reunited with her parents and sister, but no-one’s home, and everything has changed since she was last back in her abode.
Through reading letters, notes and interacting with objects in your family home, you’ve got to figure out where everyone’s gone. Dealing with an unspoken grief that’s there but also kind of not, Gone Home is a wonderful example of how loving level design can tell more of a story than even the best voice actors. As impeccable as this indie’s cast is, it’s that spellbinding, oh so lonely house that does much of the narrative heavy lifting.
23. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Developer: BioWare and LucasArts
Platforms: Xbox, Xbox One, PC, Mac, iOS and Android.
A game with a brilliantly thought-out story that’s so much more than that twist. With power-hungry Sith Lords, a rag-tag group of heroes, and a bucket-of-bolts spacecraft, KOTOR has all of the elements to build an immersive Star Wars experience. Years before Disney put the franchise back on track with The Mandalorian, BioWare was casually dropping an all-time great Force-focused story into the mix. The Darth Revan twist is an all-timer, no doubt. But even before this RPG delivers the Sith Lord of mic drops, it impresses thanks to thoughtfully written side characters, like the noble but conflicted Bastila Shan, or the awesomely aggro droid HK-47.
22. Mass Effect 2
Platforms: PS3, PS4, PS5, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Assemble a crew of sidekicks, achieve the impossible, save the galaxy. It’s hardly ground-breaking material for sci-fi, but Mass Effect 2 taps into one of the all time classic adventure stories: uneasy allies versus overwhelming odds. And it all plays out in space, with the role of overwhelming odds being played by ancient, titanic machines. It’s still punch-the-air satisfying when Shepard and friends smash through the game's suicide mission climax.
Few other games make you feel so close to the supporting cast, either. Each crew member has a deep backstory, 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 2’s story has left a lasting impression on you.
21. God of War
Developer: Sony Santa Monica Studio
Platforms: Xbox, PC, Mac, iOS and Android
After the incredibly shouty original trilogy, few gamers would have thought Kratos and Santa Monica Studio had a great story in them. How wrong we were. While the original games were defined by all-consuming vengeful hate, rebooted God of War ditches much of that loathing for deep-seated, yet restrained parental love. By giving Kratos a son, Sony finally allows Kratos to become a truly three-dimensional character… albeit one who still yanks an ogre’s innards out every 40 seconds. A special word too for Christopher Judge. The former Stargate SG1 actor makes a wonderful Kratos, giving a performance that dovetails between barely contained rage and an all-encompassing love for his child.
20. Horizon Zero Dawn
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Platforms: PS4, PC
The story of Horizon Zero Dawn is fantastic on a number of levels. Firstly, it's the creation of the team over at Guerrilla Games, which is famous for the Killzone series, games that have never been heralded for their storylines. It’s also fantastic because it has a female protagonist in Aloy, with strong themes of femininity and matriarchal societies. Thirdly, it actually creates a vision of an end of the world that isn’t terrible. Quite the mean feat eh? But at its heart, this is a story of sci-fi robot dinosaurs, tribal humanity, and a kick-ass heroine.
19. Life is Strange/Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment/Deck Nine
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS
It seems almost mean to bundle both these brilliant episodic titles into one entry for the best game stories, but they’re best experienced as one package. The original Life is Strange tells the story of Max Caulfield and her friend Chloe Price facing the perils of adolescence, love, and an impending supernatural, town-destroying, storm. Across three episodes you uncover a terrible secret about what happened to a missing girl, Rachel Amber, who happened to be incredibly important to Chloe. It’s very much focused on how you want to tell the story, and the branching narratives mean that it merits a few playthroughs just so you can see just how far the ripples of your actions and words stretch.
And when you’ve done that, go play Before the Storm. The prequel focuses on the relationship between Chloe and Rachel before the events of Life is Strange. It’s a powerful narrative on growing up, loss, and emotions. It feels more grounded because of its lack of the supernatural, helping make the story options connect and more importantly, resonate. And like the original, every decision you make changes the flow of the story. Play it over and over again, you deserve it.
18. The Last of Us Part 2
Developer: Naughty Dog
The only series that’s treated to two entries on this list – barring one other – and for very good reason. Like the first two Godfather films, this is the concluding part to a unified, much larger story. The Last of Us Part 2 may not be as universally easy to digest as the wholly beloved PS3 original, but this is still an astonishing piece of storytelling. Brave and utterly unsentimental, it remains an essential, albeit emotionally-scarring experience – one that has no fear about making players utterly crestfallen. When it comes to virtual sadness, The Last of Us Part 2 is king.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac and Linux
Walking simulator games that tug at your heartstrings have been seeing a surge of late, but few have dug into the deeper levels found in Campo Santo’s Firewatch. The game partially works so well because of the premise: Henry, your character, is spending the summer working as a ranger in Wyoming. Although he wanted the gig to get away from his own thoughts and life, he winds up building a chatty relationship with his boss through their radio conversations.
That isolation, tucked away in a natural setting that’s equal parts pretty and perilous, makes a perfect backdrop for this suspenseful tale. Each strange discovery Henry makes drives the story forward until it has the unstoppable momentum of an avalanche. Once you start playing, it’s damn near impossible to put down until the final credits roll.
16. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PS4, PS5
Uncharted 2 may be the best pure expression of what Uncharted is all about, but it’s Nathan Drake’s final chapter - Uncharted 4: Among Thieves - that delivers the best story. Building on the emotional beats it mastered as a storyteller during production of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog gives us a more thoughtful take on Nate – one that’s filled with Indy-style thrills, but also moments of quiet character pathos. This is the game where Drake finally starts to question his mortality, and more importantly, makes his peace with the fact he needs to soldier up and become an actual adult.
15. Portal 2
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, and Xbox 360
After Portal's brilliant, minimalist narrative introduced gamers to the silent Chell and the decidedly less silent GLaDOS, Valve faced a tall order. 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 of Portal 2, from the curious Wheatley to the amazingly charismatic Cave Johnson.
Yes, there was still plenty more to see (and curse) from Aperture. Exploring the depths of the derelict business 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.
14. Red Dead Redemption 2
Developer: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
The second part of one of the greatest video game stories ever told. Once again, this is an exception to including multiple game entries from the same series in this list. Still, when it comes to Arthur Morgan’s wondrous Wild West quest, what choice do we have? Combining empowering gunplay with one of the most geographically interesting open-world maps of all time, this is AAA storytelling at its best. Regardless of the fate of its outlaw, Red Dead Redemption 2 somehow sets the stage for an even more compelling sandbox story, with both games combining to create a larger, more cathartic story.
13. NieR: Automata
Platforms: PS4 and PC
It’s not often that you can say any piece of media has 26 different endings - the majority of which can potentially be unlocked in a single playthrough. But that’s exactly what NieR: Automata achieves. The first time the credits roll on your adventures with 2B, it’s just the beginning. No longer is your death a mere “Game Over” or respawn, it’s subverting the traditional constructs of video game endings, deaths, and rebirth since the dawn of gaming time. Feed into that all the themes of automatons, the fourth-wall-breaking, and the narrative slights of hands, and NieR: Automata becomes one of the best game stories ever.
12. Half-Life 2
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Nearly 20 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 ever. Set some years after the events 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. Thanks to the trust it affords players, Half-Life 2 stands apart as a first-person shooter way ahead of its time, with a narrative that keeps you perplexed but forever invested.
11. Shadow of the Colossus
Developer: Team Ico/Bluepoint Games
Platforms: PS2, PS3, PS4
The crux of this goliath-slaying quest’s story may be held back to the final scene, yet though it’s light on dialogue, Shadow of the Colossus is still one of the greatest video game tales ever told. Combine its bewitching score with a mysterious world that’s begging to be explored, and an emotionally-tortured hero who clearly hates every action players force him into, and you have a narrative masterpiece. Dealing in guilt like almost no other game, SotC is one of the storytelling giants. Appropriate, giving the subject matter.
10. Metal Gear Solid
Platforms: PS1, PS3, PC
Hideo Kojima’s first real attempt at Hollywood-aping storytelling remains his best. The game that essentially created the 3D stealth genre is also one that tells a brilliant tale. In David Hayter’s Solid Snake, you have the closest gaming equivalent to Die Hard’s John McClane we’ll ever have: a sturdy yet wisecracking lead who imbues every line he’s given with deadpan life experience. Before Kojima became in love with his own overblown scripts, Metal Gear Solid was the game where he managed to perfectly balance gameplay and (reasonably) tight plotting.
9. Red Dead Redemption
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
A sad, sombre great, Red Dead Redemption is as emotionally true as the famously caustic Rockstar has ever let itself become. After a conveyor belt of cynical GTA criminals, Rockstar eases off the sarcasm to tell the tale of a decent cowboy who’s seeking – wait for it - ‘redemption’ for his past criminal deeds. Thanks to its brilliantly paced, constantly changing campaign, John Marston proves easy to pull for. Better yet? Rockstar gives the conflicted outlaw an amazing three-hour send-off that proves to be one of the most emotionally enriching video game endings ever. Turns out, Rockstar can make heartfelt heroes after all. Who knew?
8. Persona 4
Platforms: 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
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS Vita, PSP, PC, Linux, iOS, and Android
An intense, emotional ride until the very end, Telltale's 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
Platforms: PS3, PS4
The most emotionally layered, big-budget video game there’s ever been. Told with all the narrative ferocity of an indie project that never expects a sequel, The Last of Us proves to be a masterclass in single-player pacing. Setting you in the shoes of a grizzled gunrunner who’s more than done with the end of the world, TLOU stands unbelievably tall thanks to his relationship with a young girl who may just hold the key to saving humanity. Naughty Dog’s potty-mouthed teen isn’t just one of the most complex heroes ever, she’s arguably the greatest character in PlayStation history.
5. What Remains of Edith Finch
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC and Mac
It’s hard to tell you exactly why this indie’s story is so utterly amazing without ruining it entirely, but that’s part of its charm. The less you know about this electrically eclectic game, 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.
Freed from big-budget story pressures, What Remains of Edith Finch can be gloriously random whenever it wants. One moment you’ll be playing as a seal-devouring shark, the next a fish-butchering factory worker. And just when you think you’ve got its narrative pacing pegged, Edith will floor you with an incredible homage to Michael Myers’ Halloweeen. This is independent storytelling at its most nuanced.
4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Platforms: 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)
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and Mac
Would you kindly... recognize the continued legacy of Irrational Games' BioShock? Far more than just its perfectly judged final act twist, Ken Levine’s genre-defining shooter proves itself to be a master of background storytelling. In Rapture, you’re dealing with one of the great video game settings: a submerged city that defies expectations at every wicked, watery turn. At one point you’ll be admiring a giant squid as it scuttles past the hub of a long-submerged city. The next? You could easily be setting your Palpatine-style lightning hands on a monstrous deep-sea diver whose only purpose is to protect a small girl so sinister, she makes the kid out of The Ring look like Mary Poppins Jnr.
2. Her Story
Developer: Sam Barlow
Platforms: 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
Platforms: 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?