One of the greatest things about video game stories is that they place you right at the centre of the action. They're often of the same calibre (and occasionally better, bar some spectacular exceptions) as the big blockbuster movies, but rather than being a passenger to all the action, you're the one driving it forward.
From taking a train ride into the unknown with scientist Gordon Freeman, to uncovering the secrets of the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo, or discovering exactly what remains of Edith Finch – in a series of levels that seamlessly fuse narrative to inventive game mechanics – these are experiences that hold a special place in our memory; moving beyond filmic storytelling devices and embracing the possibilities of interactivity. This collection showcases some of the best in video game storytelling. There's not even a place for Ico which, frankly, we're writing a letter of complaint to ourselves about.
Here are the GamesRadar+ choices for the best video game stories of all time.
30. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform(s): PS3 and PS4.
There’s a reason that Nathan Drake has hung around for quite so long, and it’s not just because he’s a dab hand with a grappling hook. Yes, the gameplay has always been an action-packed spectacular, full of explosions and gun fights and near-misses, but at its heart, it’s also a fantastic narrative. It’s hard to pick which one of Nathan’s adventures is the greatest story, but we put it to a vote and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came out on top - narrowly beating the latest adventure Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. From its blighter of a train scene opener, to its complex love triangle, brilliant baddies and undead monsters thrown in for good measure. It’s full of twists and turns, and makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than you probably deserve to.
29. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Developer: Infinity Ward
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac, Wii, Nintendo DS
No, we haven’t gone totally mad. A Call of Duty game with a great story does really exist - really - and it’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It’s not like Call of Duty games hadn’t tried to create a story before, it was just that Modern Warfare really nailed how to make a war game into something akin to a movie. It bucked the normal game trend of making the Russians the big bad, and instead made you fight a powerful movement known as the Ultranationalist Party that’s trying to overthrow the Russian Federation. The British SAS teams up with the Russians to foil the Ultranationalists’ plot, there’s a nuclear weapon involved and a chap named Khaled al-Asad and a tonne of missions that kept the gameplay constantly changing and feeling fresh. It all comes together to create one of the most engaging and cinematic single-player campaigns in an FPS, like, ever. Heck, it’s even emotional at some point.
28. Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton Games
Platform(s): PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Android, PC and Linux.
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. Oh yeah, and he always dons an animal mask before the killing starts. As you do. 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 is 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.
27. Final Fantasy 6
Developer: Square Enix
Platform(s): 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. FF6 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 FF6 is actually Kefka’s tale, then it’s a well told one indeed.
26. Alan Wake
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox 360 and PC.
You would expect great storytelling from a game that stars a novelist, and Alan Wake’s 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 literally and figuratively want to consume him. 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. Alan's never sure what’s real or not, but he knows he loves his wife, and that might be enough to see him through.
Developer: Toby Fox
Platform(s): 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.
24. Chrono Trigger
Developer: Square Enix
Platform(s): 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 tracks of timelines might be complicated, but the characters’ motivations never were.
Developer: Frictional Games
Platform(s): Xbox One, PS4 , PC and Mac.
This science fiction tale follows Simon Jarrett trying to figure out how he wound up in an underwater research facility where things have gone very, very wrong. Rather than turn to combat, the game uses stealth and puzzles to tell Simon’s unsettling story. The less you know about the plot points going into Soma, the better. But what you should know is what sets this apart from others that set the same tone. Many horror games create tension by forcing the player to fight off more powerful opponents and manage meagre resources. The suspense in Soma is entirely down to the story and how it is told. Because let’s be real: staring down the meaning of consciousness and life and what makes us human can be downright terrifying. No aliens or monsters needed!
22. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Developer: Rockstar Games
Platform(s): Xbox, PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, iOS, Android, PC and Mac.
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, our 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 are 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 likeable, 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.
21. Grim Fandango
Platform(s): 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.
Seriously, Ico's not on the list – despite its landmark achievement in interactive storytelling – and you can see what we picked instead by clicking 'next page'.