It seems odd that on a site analysing video game stories there isn’t a list of some of the best. While I’ve compiled a short list here of what stories gamers should be checking out for narrative bliss, I thought it would be appropriate to take some time and showcase what I believe to be some of the best video game stories ever created.
Please keep in mind – this is not an exhaustive list. The games listed here are what I believe to be some of the best narratives used in gaming, and any other site with a similar list could have 10 totally different games or franchises.
The developers of the games listed here understand how narrative works. Whether they’re putting players into space or sending them back in time, these stories are the pinnacle of gaming narrative and represent what the medium can do if more time and effort is put into writing great, believable stories.
There’s no shame in making a video game play like an action film, and Uncharted accomplishes that task extremely well. But the secret to Uncharted’s success isn’t in the strength of its story, but in the believability of its voice acting.
Nolan North encompasses the breadth of Nathan Drake’s character with poise and expertise. In order to take players on a believable journey, you need to give them believable characters as well.
Story is important. But the vessels through which gamers are taken along for the wide are just as crucial, and Uncharted understands that solid voice acting is one of the most important methods of doing this.
9. Metal Gear Solid
There are plenty of valid criticisms gamers could level at Metal Gear Solid, the most prominent of which being the franchises uses cutscenes much too liberally and relies on them instead of using gameplay.
But beyond those arguments lie a complicated story that doesn’t descend into anarchy. The developers of Metal Gear understand that a story needs clear direction and pacing – the gamer always knows what’s going on and what the motivation of the next scene is.
There are similarities to Splinter Cell here, but I think Metal Gear is able to tell a story more clearly and put the player in context in a more believable way. Just as Snake does, the gamer always knows what he or she needs to do – direction is key to a good story.
8. Dead Space
I’ve written about Dead Space elsewhere on the site, and rightly so – it’s one of the few games that understand how to tell narrative in the midst of action without breaking the player’s immersion.
The key to Dead Space’s quality of narrative is the immediate use of subtext. In the first game, when the player first starts out you aren’t told that you’re an engineer, or that you’re heading towards a ship held by a strange alien life-force. instead, you’re shown pictures and videos of your girlfriend, immediately creating an emotional anchor.
The Dead Space franchise is arguably about humanity, and the question of what it really means to be human. As the marker fosters a deadly life force that rips humans apart and turns them into monsters, as Isaac goes powers on he loses his group with reality. The horror in this franchise doesn’t come from what lurks behind the corner – it’s what lurks within your head.
Just as Dead Space uses subtext to tell a very human story, BioShock uses philosophy to deepen its narrative.
There are plenty of solid narrative techniques in BioShock – a believable premise, well-voiced characters, a unique (and for the time, innovative), morality system and a level design that rewards linear gameplay. But the thread that entwines them all together is the underlying philosphy of Andrew Ryan’s objectivism.
Objectivism is a philosophy that teaches man makes his own way in life. Charity is essentially immoral, and you owed nothing. This is the moralistic prism through which Ryan constructs Rapture, and through which the player approaches the morality system.
Much has been made over the way gamers approach harvesting ADAM for their powers, but it is merely a mechanic used as an extension and representation of the game’s objectivist philosophy – it is one of the perfect examples of a game using its subtext to influence the actual gameplay.
BioShock is arguably a linear game, and the story loses some power because of it, but more developers would do well to pump their games with an underlying philosophy that influences everything from art direction to game mechanics.
6. Silent Hill 2
James Sunderland is not the best protagonist in the history of gaming. Some of his dialogue is odd, the voice acting is at times quite lifeless and a few of his decisions are questionable. But yet, Silent Hill 2 still represents some of the best narrative in the history of gaming.
I could spend an entire series of posts on Silent Hill 2, but for now I’ll just focus on what makes this game work – a character arc. Unlike some action games or adventure titles, the player actually has to play Silent Hill 2 in order to learn more about the protagonist. He is complicated, mysterious and will not give up everything about him in the first few hours of gameplay.
I’ve explained here why having a character arc is so important to a story. Killing zombies, ghosts and monsters is all well and good, but games can be such much more if they simply give their characters an arc.It makes a game so much more memorable, and Silent Hill 2 is remembered because of it.
People change. They adapt to the circumstances around them. And Silent Hill 2 is a perfect example of how a game works when developers adhere to classic storytelling and narrative techniques.
While the premise of Thief may be a little far-fetched, it also represents one of the most under-used techniques in gaming – story-telling through exploration.
If you want to progress through Thief, you have to read logs left behind by the crew. They give you more information on how to proceed and will help you bypass some of the more difficult pieces of gameplay.
But more importantly, they help flesh out the atmosphere of the world. Just as players read logs in Dead Space, or talk to the non-playable characters in Deus Ex, reading in Thief gives you a much better feeling of the scope of the world you’re playing in and you have the added benefit of using a thief trainer and cheat to your heart’s desire.
Thief may not be the most believable story, but it’s certainly convincing.
4. Half Life
One of the most loved gaming franchises of all time, the Half Life series also represents a step-forward in story-telling for interactive entertainment.
The story itself is compelling enough – scientists rip open the space time continuaem, allow violent aliens to run rampant and put the entire earth into jeapordy after a separate alien force invades Earth and puts the entire population into slavery.
But the most compelling story-telling technique in Half Life isn’t the original premise, or the struggling remnants of humanity represented by City 17 inhabitants, Alyx Vance and her family, but in the method of in-game action.
The action doesn’t stop here – not once. Cutscenes are done away with in favour of continuous in-game action. As a result, the use of first-person perspective is given so much more depth. The gamer actually feels as if they are in the story – they’re a part of the resistance – and not just another grunt in a sea of armies.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why gamers feel such a connection with Gordon Freeman. NPCs talk to you directly and use Gordon’s name, connecting you with the character.
It’s a technique that Half Life didn’t invent, but definitely improved, and inspired countless other games to do the same. It was surely a critical step forward in gaming narrative that will influence other developers for years to come.
3. Assassin’s Creed
I’ve said this previously, but Assassin’s Creed isn’t about floating over roof tops and stabbing unsuspecting guards from above – it’s about power, politics, greed and envy.
The power of this franchise’s story comes from its use of history. Desmond finds himself drawn into the oldest conspiracy known to mankind. It encompasses the birth of humans, and seemingly every person that has come to power ever since – presidents, czars, wars and treaties are all part of this deception.
The use of the Subject 16 puzzles are the key here. In each one, the player is given another glimpse into just how far this conspiracy runs – famous scientists and world leaders are shown to be part of a centuries-old conspiracy designed to control humanity and keep them into submission.
Assassin’s Creed is a fun ride. But it’s even more entertaining if the player does a little work, and figures out just how far the rabbit hole goes.
Portal doesn’t have a deep narrative, but Valve’s quality of story-telling is shown in what it doesn’t tell the player.
The game rewards the player for discovering the narrative not through spoken exposition, but through exploring the level design. As the game goes on, the test subject can wander in secret areas and find writings scribbled on the walls suggesting that GlaDOS isn’t all that she seems – in fact, this “test” is a deadly place to be.
Portal also understands character. GlaDOS transforms from a friendly robot voice into a deadly force of subtle destruction with a penchant for black humour – and her dialogue shows this off:
We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you. We are very very happy for your success.
We are throwing a party in honor of your tremendous success. Place the device on the ground, then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides.
Combined with a a solid understanding of pacing and a bold confidence in linear story-telling, Valve knows that giving the player too much information will ruin the fun of discovering the world they’ve built for them. Instead, it knows that gamers should be treated as if they actually have a little bit of intelligence when it comes to story and character.
1. Deus Ex
A global conspiracy, dozens of fleshed out characters and one of the biggest and most believable words in gaming history- Deus Ex represents a pinnacle in video game story-telling.
The gameplay may be clunky, the AI completely deficient and the graphics horribly outdated, but developers would do well to take some lessons from this gaming gem.
The actual conspiracy isn’t what makes Deus Ex so great – it’s the way it unfolds. You’re given a hint of what’s happening at the beginning of the game, but you slowly reveal more as the game goes on. When the player begins at Liberty Island, you know nothing and you’re dropped into the action without much knowledge of the world at all.
Instead, just as Portal allows players to learn more by level exploration, Deus Ex only reveals the story through speaking with other characters. Through the vast amount of conversation options available to the player, he or she will learn more about the plot as they go and talk to these other NPCs.
It’s the perfect way to combine storytelling and gameplay. You want to keep the player interested in the world but you also want to tell a convincing story. This is a very natural way of allowing the two to interconect – and the same applies for reading text logs and datacubes.
Deus Ex is a game dripping in atmosphere. From the level design, to the clothing, music and dialogue, the player believes they are in the middle of a dystopian future. This isn’t a replacement for narrative, but it helps the player believe.
Deus Ex was also one of the first games to allow you to choose your own path as you continue. This is where the ultimate strength of the narrative lies – although the gamer is allowed to choose his or her own path, the narrative never weakens. Each strand is as strong as the others – the fact gamers are still playing it through over a decade later and finding new narrative options is a testament to Deus Ex’s narrative depth.
This game requires several posts of its own. It is what happens when a strong narrative is combined with rich characters, dialogue and a dedication to allowing players to forge their own path.
This game punishes you. You can go and kill some characters, but the others will reprimand you for it and the story will be changed. There is nothing more you can do. It is the perfect representation of decisions that occur in real life – and this is a practice more developers should be emulating.