Storytelling is one of the most human things we have ever come up with as a species. Technologies change, cultures change, populations migrate, dwindle and flourish, and yet we still crave stories, whether they are just new clothes on the hero with a thousand faces or something deep that breaks the mould. [link,24024]Video games[/link] are no strangers to stories either, even if in many cases they just a pretext for engaging in the core mechanics.
We are here to discuss games that have stories that stay with us, integrate perfectly with whatever type of gameplay the title features, or are about something other than just a Campbellian monomyth. It’s not a complete list, nor could it ever be: there is no metric to establish, no objective values to apply.
There are also many more games with great stories than any useful list could find the space for. The games below may not have the greatest mechanics or graphics, but the stories they tell are what drives one forward.
|Yakuza 0||2018-08-01||SEGA||-51%||Read more|
|The Wolf Among Us||2013-10-11||Telltale Games||-13%||Read more|
|Mass Effect Trilogy (2021 remaster)||2021-05-14||BioWare||-74%||Read more|
|Mass Effect Trilogy||Nov 6, 2012||BioWare||-59%||Read more|
|Knights of the Old Republic||2003-11-19||BioWare||-69%||Read more|
|Her Story||2015-06-24||Sam Barlow||-||Read more|
|God of War||2018-04-20||SIE Santa Monica Studio||-||Read more|
|Disco Elysium||2019-10-15||ZA/UM||-||Read more|
|Control||2019-08-27||Remedy Entertainment||-79%||Read more|
|BioShock Remastered||2016-09-15||2K Australia||-83%||Read more|
|Bioshock: The Collection||2016-09-15||2K Australia||-53%||Read more|
|Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice||2017-08-08||Ninja Theory||-70%||Read more|
|Legacy of Kain Collection||2003-12-17||Crystal Dynamics||-||Read more|
|Nier: Automata||2017-03-17||SQUARE ENIX||-65%||Read more|
|Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition||2017-04-11||Beamdog||-69%||Read more|
|Red Dead Redemption||2010-05-18||Rockstar Games||-||Read more|
|Red Dead Redemption 2||2019-11-05||Rockstar Games||-61%||Read more|
|The Banner Saga||2014-01-14||Stoic||-82%||Read more|
|The Last Of Us||June 14, 2013||Naughty Dog||-||Read more|
|To The Moon||2011-11-01||Freebird Games||-22%||Read more|
|What Remains of Edith Finch||2017-04-24||Giant Sparrow||-||Read more|
|Persona 5 Strikers||2021-02-23||ATLUS||-42%||Read more|
|Life is Strange 2 Complete Season||2018-09-27||Dontnod Entertainment, Feral Interactive||-73%||Read more|
|Life is Strange||2015-01-29||DONTNOD Entertainment||-17%||Read more|
|Grim Fandango Remastered||2015-01-26||Double Fine Productions||-73%||Read more|
|Grand Theft Auto San Andreas||2005-06-06||Rockstar Games||-||Read more|
|Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain||2015-09-01||Konami Digital Entertainment||-83%||Read more|
|Resident Evil 8: Village||2021-05-07||Capcom||-67%||Read more|
|Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition||2020-08-07||Guerrilla Games||-70%||Read more|
|Lead writer||Masayoshi Yokoyama|
|Blurb||Two low-rank Yakuza members get tangled in a complicated cold war for a valuable piece of real estate and things quickly get violent.|
The Yakuza series is often given credit for its over-the-top combat and wealth of weird side-stories and minigames. But it must not be forgotten that these games’ main stories are great stories with a very different tone. Yakuza 0 is a great example, not only because it requires no prior familiarity with the series, but also because it has a genuinely great, dramatic and emotional story.
The story bounces between Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, both low-ranking yakuza who ended up in a mess well above their pay grade. Friendships are formed, betrayals are suffered, and both men are forced to weigh their principles against their ambitions. The action can be over-the-top, the characters are larger than life, but there is great pacing, great twists, and a strong emotional foundation.
|Lead writer||Toby Fox|
|Blurb||A human child falls into the underworld of monsters and becomes a part of a centuries-old problem|
Undertale’s story made quite a splash in the hobby, cleverly subverting video games tropes and breaching the fourth wall in a way that adds to the experience without being just a comedy gimmick. One of the strongest themes of the game is your player character’s attitude towards violence, which eventually creates into two distinct stories: the Pacifist and the Genocide route.
The game also doesn’t let you get away with murder either, because it can detect a deleted save and address this kind of trickery. Whatever you do, you’re bound by your choices, and the story and writing will make you feel the weight of that, whether you’re doing a neutral, pacifist, or a genocide run. When you learn the full extent of the game’s story, it will take a wonderfully tragic tone.
The Wolf Among Us
|Lead writer||Pierre Shorette|
|Blurb||A Fable is murdered in Fabletown, and sheriff Bigby Wolf needs to find out who did this.|
Based on the excellent Fables comic book series, The Wolf Among Us is a thrilling murder mystery and a glimpse into the modern-world lives of characters you know from fairy tales. Playing as Bigby Wolf, we not only have to investigate a weird murder, but also help other Fables with their problems, of which there are quite a few. The way you deal with all of that will influence how the plot resolves.
The Wolf Among Us is divided into episodes, giving the story not only great pacing, but also a shot at greater reactivity, since every episode introduces a number of choices which tend to come into play in future scenes and episodes. Above all, it’s a genuinely great urban fantasy murder mystery story, with solid characters, and the story actively depending on the fantasy worldbuilding. It’s amazing.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
|Lead writer||Neil Druckmann, Josh Scherr|
|Blurb||An incorrigible treasure hunter comes face to face with his past and goes to one last adventure|
The Uncharted series as whole is excellent and it’s hard to pick the one entry that fits this list best. But it’s not unreasonable to pick Uncharted 4, the grand finale of Nathan Drake’s story. After Uncharted 3 Nathan was settled and cozy with the love of his tumultuous life, Elena…until his brother, thought dead for years, came back. What follows could rival the Indiana Jones movies with its flair.
Sometimes a good story needs just likeable characters, and a sweeping adventure full of twists, turns, and lucky coincidences. We’re getting the story of the Drake brothers, a new treasure to find, and a glimpse at the excellent dynamic between Nathan and Elena, which might be one of the most believable couples in gaming. If you want a good adventure story, Uncharted IV is a very safe bet.
Mass Effect (Legendary Edition)
|Lead writer||Drew Karpyshyn, Mac Walters|
|Blurb||The first mission of freshly nominated human special operative of a galactic government turns out more important than anyone could have expected.|
It’s very explicitly a trilogy, with choices and characters carrying over between entries, so to pick just one would be a disservice to the series, which is famous for its storytelling flair and bringing cinematic camerawork to mainstream RPGs. Each game has a bit different style, but a special shout-out goes to ME2, which feels like a high budget science fiction TV with very well-written characters.
The Mass Effect story is also greatly enhanced by the companions you recruit in every game. They are some of the best characters BioWare has ever created, and friends like Garrus, Liara or Tali are present across all three games, which lets you, as Shepard, form a strong connection with them. The Legendary Edition also includes the expanded ending for ME3, and all the other DLCs as well.
Knights of the Old Republic
|Lead writer||Drew Karpyshyn|
|Blurb||In the middle of a war between the Republic and Sith forces of Darth Malak a nobody from the fleet suddenly becomes an incredibly valuable asset.|
Knights of the Old Republic is regularly put on the lists of the best RPGs, the best Star Wars games, and the best story-heavy games, and there’s a good reason for that. In many ways it’s a perfect Star Wars tale, it has everything: memorable planets, an imposing villain, a surprisingly brief Jedi training, and a cool ship very reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon. And it has a great twist too!
As you travel across the galaxy chasing coordinates leading to a mysterious Star Forge, you’ll forge friendships, outsmart your enemies, and gradually grow in power. Each planet you visit also has its own story going on, and they are cool too, involving a murder investigation, confronting a corporation, and even some clever infiltration. It’s a complete Star Wars adventure, still worth playing 20 years later.
|Lead writer||Sam Barlow|
|Blurb||Old police interviews hold the clue to solving a mystery from the nineties. Explore the database and figure out the truth.|
Her Story is definitely a unique take on video game storytelling. The game is composed of a fictional database holding over two hundred short live-action clips with specific tags assigned to them. As a result you can, and likely will, watch the clips out of order, changing the way the story unfolds. The actual story itself is also interesting, and it would actually be rude to spoil it, you should play the game yourself.
Her Story is also very immersive, not least because of the well-acted live-action clips. The narrative drags you in, because only the answers can be heard, leaving you deduce what exactly the question was. The freedom in exploring the database via tags is a great way of keeping the player attention, and since you always know how many clips you haven’t seen yet, there’s an incentive to look to more clues.
God of War
|Developer||Santa Monica Studio|
|Lead writer||Matthew Sophos, Richard Gaubert, Cory Barlog|
|Blurb||A father and son travel across the realms of Norse mythology to honour the ashes of a wife and mother. Gods interfere.|
The 2018 God of War was at the same time a reboot of the series and a sequel to God of War III. It heavily changed the gameplay, and told a new story about Kratos, now older, less fueled by anger…and having a son, Atreus. Their relationship is the backbone of the story, but the relationships between Norse gods, featuring heavily in the game, are just as important, a foil to Kratos’ own story.
While the combat is just as brutal as it has always been, the story also examines Kratos’ deeds in Greece, years before he came to Scandinavia. Indeed, it becomes an important plotpoint, and a certain return of a familiar element is less joyous, and more sombre, momentous. It’s a great story, with many awesome moments, complex characters, and great acting.
|Lead writer||Robert Kurvitz|
|Blurb||You wake up disoriented in a hotel room, vaguely recalling that you’re in fact a detective on duty. Your thoughts are having a field day in your head.|
Disco Elysium quickly became one of the most praised modern RPGs. It’s a game that has a lot of opinions, the main character is a walking disaster of a man, and the idea of your skills being NPCs living in his head was clearly inspired. There is also a murder mystery to solve, and it’s hard to ignore, since the is hanging off a tree right outside the first location. There’s a lot to unpack, what will you do?
DE is an RPG unlike any other. Your character spends a lot of his time in his own head, working through the throughs sent to him by his skills and ideas. Each skill tries to drag him in a different direction, and his work partner, Kim Kitsuragi, has to endure the PC’s antics. It’s a fantastic game giving you an unprecedented level of control over your character’s personality and beliefs.
|Lead writer||Sam Lake, Josh Stubbs|
|Blurb||A tribute to the SCP Foundation, Control takes you on a bizarre journey into the headquarters of an agency safeguarding and containing supernatural phenomena.|
Control is perfect for people who devoured X-Files or love creepypasta. Playing as a newly promoted director of Federal Bureau of Control you’ll encounter many weird items, extradimensional spaces, and people controlled by a weird force. The last one wouldn’t be so bad, if they haven’t killed so many people working for the agency you’ve only JUST learned about and became a chief of.
The Oldest House, a larger on the inside building the entire game takes place in is full of weird items, small horror and mystery stories, and a DLC also features an interesting crossover with another game by Remedy, Alan Wake, bringing two stories together. If you enjoy the writing of the SCP Foundation and other such stories, Control delivers more of that, with the added solid, superpowered gameplay.
|Lead writer||Ken Levine|
|Blurb||A man descends into an underwater city founded on a fleeting dream, and now ruled by chaotic struggle.|
BioShock managed to integrate gameplay and story and make it natural, leading to a reveal that is dramatic for both the main character and the player. And it revolved around psychological conditioning.
Throughout the game other characters ask the protagonist if he would kindly perform a task for them, which he does, controlled by the player who is used to follow mission objectives anyway. It eventually turns out that the protagonist has no choice but to obey anything prefaced with the phrase “would you kindly”, a lesson learned in blood, and making the player question whether they actually had a choice, or just blindly followed the game to another piece of content like their character.
The city itself is a tribute to art deco, and its fate is a deconstruction of utopian and dystopian visions of the early-to-mid 20th century. The game isn’t politically agnostic at all, but it reinforces its themes, rather than taking away from them or existing in a space separate from the immediate player experience, like a codex or journal entries. More about Bioshock trilogy
Hellblade: Senuas Sacrifice
|Lead writer||Tameem Antoniades|
|Blurb||A Pict warrior confronts her inner demons to save a loved one from Helheim.|
Hellblade is a fascinating game, and probably even an important one. Its protagonist, the eponymous Senua, is a Pict warrior who suffers from psychosis. The player sees the same things Senua does, and there’s rarely a clear sense of what it real and what is an apparition.
The voices in Senua’s head also whisper to the player, and while they may warn about danger, they are just as likely to lead her (and the player) astray. A journey to reclaim a loved one’s life from Helheim is haunted by the Furies, the voices in Senua’s head, and the Darkness, a malevolent force acting to harm the warrior.
The storyline can be easily interpreted as one’s struggle against the mental illness and learning to cope with it and accept it. The developer Ninja Theory worked with people suffering from psychosis to make sure they depict it accurately and respectfully, and as a result created a game which received a critical and fan acclaim for its story and themes.
There is a sequel, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II planned and in production as of writing this update.
Legacy of Kain (series)
|Lead writer||Many, including Denis Dyack, Amy Hennig, Carol Wolf|
|Blurb||A vampire-tyrant struggles against his destiny, while the world crumbles because of his defiance.|
Describing the full storyline of the Legacy of Kain series is something that would require an article of its own. It plays over five games, involves a lot of time-travel, Lovecraftian primordial deities, betrayals and uneasy alliances, and complex schemes unfolding over centuries.
This barely touches on the complexity of the story, or the fascinating mythos which motivates every event taking place. Excellent voice performances of Simon Templeman (as vampire tyrant-king Kain), Michael Bell (as fateless wraith Raziel), and the late Tony Jay (as The Elder God, a Lovecraftian soul-hungry deity) lend the story a great deal of gravitas.
If you like stories about ancient vampires, fate, time-travel, or all of the above, do yourself a favour and try Legacy of Kain if you get the chance. You won’t regret it. Unfortunately since 2003 we haven’t heard anything about a possible continuation, and an ill-fated competitive multiplayer game Nosgoth crashed into the ground after a mediocre reception.
|Lead writer||Yoko Taro, Hana Kikuchi, Yoshibo Akabane|
|Blurb||Two androids discover their true purpose and history while performing a seemingly unconnected task.|
Many games’ replay value lies in different choices made at certain points in the story: you choose to support somebody else, or spare someone you chose to kill previously. For NieR: Automate replay value lies in the fact that every new playthrough (of sorts) is different and provides new context for everything that happens in the game. Sometimes it even changes the character you control.
The story is about two androids with a seemingly clear purpose: help reclaim the Earth from robots and make space for what remained of humanity to return. As you play through Endings A to E, you’ll learn that nothing is ever quite so simple, with significant plot twists changing the way you view the setting and characters. Saying anything more would be doing the game a disservice.
If you’re into androids, philosophy (there’s a fair amount of it here), evolving perception of a setting, and existential uncertainty, try NieR: Automata.
Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition
|Lead writer||Chris Avellone|
|Blurb||A scarred man and his outcast companions travel across realities, searching for answers and closure|
Imagine waking up on a stone-cold slab in a morgue, with the smell of corpse-preserving chemicals around you, and the sound of the shuffling steps of zombies performing some menial task. Your back hurts, and you do not remember why. Then a floating skull talks to you, and reads a warning letter of sorts, carved on the skin of your back. This is how Planescape: Torment starts, and then things get weird.
P:T is a bizarre journey centred around The Nameless One, an immortal man who loses his memories each time he “dies”. Throughout the game we discover some of the horrible and inspiring things his past incarnations had done over untold millennia and feel the echoes of his deeds influence his current journey. His companions are all outcasts and misfits, drawn to a man discovering the natures of his past selves. The player’s role is to decide who TNO becomes during the journey shown in the game.
It’s a world where faith and conviction can reshape the fabric of reality, decisions and beliefs carry much more weight and the game’s main and side stories explore this in a very satisfying way.
Red Dead Redemption
|Developer||Rockstar San Diego|
|Lead writer||Chris Avellone|
|Blurb||A retired outlaw has to hunt down his old accomplices to save his family and regain his freedom.|
Rockstar is no stranger to excellent writing and gripping narratives. Few of their productions, however, can compare to Red Dead Redemption, a video game equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s eulogy for the western genre—Unforgiven. The story of John Marston, a reformed bandit, whom the proto-FBI agents force back in the saddle with a gun in hand resonated with many people, not least because of a believable voice performance of Rob Wiethoff as Marston.
Marston is a man who spent most of his life as a bandit, but truly lived when he abandoned that life and settled with his family. Using him as a point of reference, RDR depicts the death throes of the Old West. John’s story digs into his past, while staying hopeful of the future. His ultimate end is a touching and a very dramatic moment.
The fan’s love for RDR was rewarded with Red Dead Redemption 2. RDR2 is about the years when Marston was still a part of the gang, although the player takes control of another member of Van Der Linde’s bandit band. Arthur Morgan is an excellent character in his own right. Since launch of RDR2, more people have come to appreciate Morgan, especially since his story is no less engaging or dramatic than Marston’s.
The Banner Saga
|Lead writer||Alex Thomas, Drew McGee|
|Blurb||The journey of two peoples, who run from an ancient enemy coming back to the surface of a twilit world.|
The Banner Saga is a game about a journey. Two journeys, to be exact. One of giant-like Varls escorting a human prince to their capital to seal an alliance. The other of people running from their land after it had been invaded by the Dredge, a powerful and malevolent force from the legends.
Thanks to a gorgeous art and evocative personalities the characters become alive, making choices harder, victories more satisfying, and losses more harrowing. The story plays out over three games, and decisions made in one game transfer to the next, changing how the story goes. Nevertheless, it’s inspiring, its dramatic, and epic in the best sense of this word.
The Last Of Us
|Lead writer||Neil Druckmann|
|Blurb||A jaded man and a cynical teenager travel across zombie-infested USA in an attempt to avert the plague.|
Twenty years after the United States have been forced into a desperate struggle against a fungal infection turning humans into ravenous monsters, a teenage girl turns out to be immune to the disease. In order to use her immunity to create a cure, she needs to be taken to a secure facility across the country. A jaded man whose past still defines him is hired to be her guard and guide on the journey.
The game is very much about the journey and the father-daughter relationship forming between a man who lost his child years ago, and an orphan, who was born after the world had already been thrown into chaos and doesn’t really have the same frame of reference her guardian has. Wonderful performances from voice actors Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie bring these two characters to life.
The Last of Us is one of the best stories with zombies and depicting the way people try to cope with a new world order. If you’re up for good dramatic tension and an ending that’s a rollercoaster of emotions, check it out, especially since it recently received a remastered version. There’s also a sequel, which sparked controversy due to unexpected direction its story took.
To The Moon
|Lead writer||Kan Gao|
|Blurb||Granting a dying man a memory of fulfilling his dream uncovers more than the memory artists were prepared for.|
In the world of To the Moon, there is a company which creates memories for dying people, making them believe they managed to complete their greatest dream. A man called Johnny Wyles’ dream is going to the Moon, for reasons he cannot exactly recall.
Two employees of the company take a dive into his mind, untangling memories and piecing together a history of his life in order to find the best way of implanting the astronautical memory. Unfortunately, the usual method doesn’t work, and doctors Rosalene and Watts have to fix whatever is blocking the process.
The full story of Johnny and his wife River is quite sad, very touching, and best left unspoiled, to preserve its impact. Let’s just say that it involves repressing memories and having them repressed by others, attempts to bring back someone lost, and seeking a way to make things work. You’ll get it when you play it.
What Remains of Edith Finch
|Lead writer||Ian Dallas|
|Blurb||A visit to the ancestral home reveals a tragic history of the family, attributed to a deadly curse.|
What Remains of Edith Finch frames its story as entries in a journal of the eponymous Edith Finch, who explores the house of the family. Many of its rooms commemorate the deaths of family members, depicting their demise in a dramatic, although embellished, manner.
Like To the Moon and Planescape: Torment, What Remains of Edith Finch is pretty much a game about discovering and piecing together something that happened a long time ago, a story set in stone, so to speak, and then acting upon what was discovered. There is something oddly universal about the draw of researching one’s family’s legacy, and What Remains of Edith Finch explores this exquisitely.
This concludes our selection of some of the best narrative-driven games.Some of them are linear, others: decision-based, all are worth attention for crafting something remarkable in this interactive medium.
You’re likely to have you own picks, and due to a subjective nature of the topic it is entirely fair. Nonetheless we hope we managed to steer your interest towards any of the titles we chose to feature and that you’ll find excitement and katharsis in some part thank to this list.