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 that breaks the mould. Video games 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.
The entries are arranged in alphabetical order to foster fairness.
In case it wasn’t obvious: This article contains things generally considered spoilers.
Games with Great Stories
|Developer:||2K Boston, 2K Australia|
|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.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
|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.
Legacy of Kain (series)
|Developer:||Silicon Knights, Crystal Dynamics|
|Writer:||Many, including Denis Dyack, Amy Hennig, Carol Wolf|
|Release year:||1996 (the first release), 2003 (the latest release)|
|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 suggests 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.
|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.
|Developer:||Black Isle Studios|
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, while the player can decide who he is 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|
|Writer:||Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth, Christian Cantamessa|
|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. Even if he doesn’t enjoy the same recognition and adulation John does, his story is no less engaging or dramatic.
The Banner Saga
|Writer:||Alex Thomas, Drew McGee|
|Release year:||2014 (the first release), 2018 (the latest release)|
|Blurb:||The journey of two people, 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.
It is also inevitably about making hard choices. Sometimes you’re going to have to cut your losses, risk everything on a wild bet, or sacrifice someone to give others a fighting chance.
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
|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 in the works, which may well be just as good as the original.
To the Moon
|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
|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 stories in gaming. 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.