Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Nintendo Switch
It would be ridiculous to consider skipping past the game that won the 2020 Nebula Awards for Game Writing, especially when that game heralds from the powerhouse developer Obsidian Entertainment, so the very first title on our list has to be the darling of 2020: Outer Worlds.
I first encountered Obsidian through their work on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (which also features on this list, albeit in a special form). They also did some solid work on two other favorites of mine: Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. They’d been through some tough times, with a number of their projects canceled, and only a crowd-funding campaign saved them from closure.
Outer Worlds was their big swing, a chance to take all the zany humor that their team had interacted with in some of their previous work including Fallout, and they knocked it out of the park. With a tale sprawling enough to land among the classic “big kids” of the serious role-playing genre, Outer Worlds created a memorable alternate future with all the dystopian anti-corporate satire that my heart could desire. There were totally some points that felt a bit forced or overwrought, but for the most part, I got sucked into the game and I have the feeling that the Outer Worlds concept boasts more than enough material for a rapidly expanding universe.
Platform(s): PS4, PS Vita, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, and Linux
One of the greatest hits of the late '90s game landscape and an utterly unforgettable gem, Grim Fandango boasts one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most unique stories to land on the interactive stage. It’s a unique combination of one of my favorite film genres (film noir) and mixed with a gorgeous aesthetic tied to Mexican folklore, a wealth of mythology not seen often enough in the media spotlight.
The humor is what I remember most about this game, with the punchy one-liners that stay with you for decades. I mean, the plot alone is pure gold, centered on Manny Calavera, travel agent to the dead.
This game came out during the heyday of LucasArts, when they were a powerhouse of originality (and not more tired IP regurgitation), so and the feel of Grim Fandango carries that excellence through intact. Point and click games were solid at the end of the '90s, and that’s ultimately what Grim Fandango is, but the story behind the puzzle-solving is worthy of inclusion in the list of best short stories ever, so even if point and click isn’t your thing, grab it for the story. And, since it was remastered in 2015, you can grab a modernized copy for only a few bucks!
Developer: Toby Fox
Platform(s): PS4, PS Vita, Windows, Linux, and Mac
From the first moments of encountering Flowy, to the final exploration of Asgore’s castle, Undertale is a hilarious yet heartfelt adventure that speaks to the kid in all of us. Toby Fox managed to create something exceedingly special here, going beyond the normal realm of video game construction to explore something deeper. From the gameplay to the story, everything about Undertale is unique and uniquely earnest and it’s easy to see why it’s reached the level of acclaim it has.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is that you can avoid killing any of the monsters you encounter, something that is rarely explored in any video game. The fact that the game’s outcome is altered based on your choice of killing or not killing is potent and helps give the game a deeper and more potent playing experience.
Developer: Telltale Games
Platform(s): PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS Vita, PSP, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android.
I never did get on board The Walking Dead TV series bandwagon, partly because I’d already encountered the original graphic novel and found it superior. So, I felt a little skeptical when I first heard about the Telltale Games version. But that skepticism got turned to pure “feels” after just a single episode. There’s little wonder in my mind why this is considered one of the best video games of all time.
Focusing on the same emotional tone as the graphic novels but following an original cast, The Walking Dead offers players an incredibly immersive character-driven experience, where choices are tracked across episodes and have huge effects on how the story and the characters develop.
The adventure game genre had started to wane before The Walking Dead arrived on the scene, with an over-reliance on puzzle-solving and shallow storytelling. What TWD showed developers was that the untapped world of narrative potential in video games could be best explored through the adventure games format, allowing indie developers to tell the sorts of tales that the big game companies weren’t concentrating on.
Developer: Frictional Games
Platform(s): Windows, Linux, OS X, PS4, Xbox One
The horror genre of video games has a long tradition as one of the hallmark staples of the medium, and some of these games feature storylines of surpassing quality. But Soma went farther by tightening its narrative focus down to a sharp blade of unnerving tension, forgoing some of the traditional gameplay mechanics choices common in previous games by the same developer in favor of putting story and character at the center of the game.
There is some seriously intense psychological horror in Soma, which favored the subtle approach to terror over the jump scares employed by so many others in the genre. As you begin to explore the underwater facilities where you awake after the start of the game, the sci-fi vibes are blended with an ever-present sense of malaise and twisted reality, and the exploration of isolation at the core of the game is visceral.
What is human consciousness? Asks Soma, perfectly aware that the answer might not be one we want to hear.
Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Platform(s): GameBoy Advance, Nintendo Virtual Console
Golden Sun gave me one of the best early gaming story experiences of my life, but it was never about the relatively simple old-school RPG combat (though I dug that, too). No, what Golden Sun offered was a solid narrative and a wealth of characters, each of whom you learned to care about as you played. Heck, by the end of the intro at Vale, with its super classic “hero’s journey” opening, I was hooked.
I loved the “science of alchemy” plot, and the epic scale of the journey at hand: a world at stake and only me, and my growing cohort of friends, standing in the way of the darkest of fates. It was a real hit for its day, and boy, did I get sucked in head over heels. I remember discovering Lemuria and how cool the revelations you learn there put all the epic pieces of the tale together.
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Platform(s): PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Mac
“Walking simulator” for some, deeply identifiable exploration of family and identity for others, Gone Home made massive waves in the gaming industry that can still be felt today. There’s certainly less of an interactive component in Gone Home than with many other games, but the interactivity is less important to the core point of the game than the ability to experience a non-linear narrative. In this regard, it’s the narrative itself that provides the primary source of interaction.
As you take on the role of Katie and explore the house that provides the setting for the game, you discover clues about the characters of Katie’s family. It’s by exploring as deeply as possible that the game offers up the deepest emotional tapestry of the lives interwoven in that space and through time.
As a video game, the lack of interactivity with the total environment places Gone Home within a very specific type of exploratory gameplay, but there can be no doubt that as the lives of Katie’s family are explored, a deep and moving emotional story is uncovered, one that has the potential to stay with you in a way that the stories of other, more gameplay-focused games simply can’t.
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, Windows
A classic science fiction setting and an open-world design would be a superb offering alone, but NieR: Automata takes things further with a superb storyline blended into the action-orientated gameplay design. Sure, this is a story you probably think you’re familiar with: the post-apocalyptic vibe isn’t new, neither is the rise of self-aware machines… but the twists that NieR: Automata offers are surprising and superb, raising this game up on a worthy pedestal above its action RPG peers.
NieR: Automata manages to build in enough links to its predecessors Drakengard and Neir that fans will be able to immerse themselves within the offered depths, but NieR: Automata functions really well as a unique stand-alone game, with a strong enough plot and multi-branching storyline (with layered “endings”) to keep players new to this world, feeling welcome and fully invested (contrast this to, say, the Final Fantasy series).
I’m not a huge fan of the combat style that NieR: Automata goes for, but luckily there’s a way to automate that and keep the focus on the storyline, which really is worthwhile.
Developer: Team Silent
Platform(s): PS2, Xbox, Windows
Silent Hill is one of the most definitive works in the horror genre that, even 20 years after its original release, still manages to influence current generations of horror games. Especially with the Director’s Cut material from the re-release, this game scores big on my list of all-time favorite video game stories.
There was plenty of straight-up hack’n’bash horror jump-scare gameplay, sure (which was pretty endemic to the design era and system), but SH2 also contained one of the most poignant, unsettling, and melancholic stories yet to be released in the gaming world. Not merely for the sake of being dark and broody, but for the sake of telling a powerfully emotional tale. Whether or not you’re a fan of the “In Water” possible ending or even the UFO optional ending from the re-release, you have to admit that this is one story you’re never going to forget.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform(s): PS3, PS4
If you’ve encountered articles about the best video game storylines of all time before, then you’ve already encountered plenty of fanfare over this now six-year-old game, but there’s no way that it could possibly be left out. The Last of Us offered players a different level of storyline depth than was common in a big-shot title, with subtle character interactions that formed a unique and potent emotional arc throughout the game’s story.
The Last of Us operates from the perception that ambiguous choices are realistic choices, and that the stories of intimate emotional decisions are the keenest ones to tell. Setting out, therefore, to tell the tale of a post-apocalyptic struggle, Naughty Dog offered players the opportunity to experience the worst that humanity has to offer alongside the best, showcasing how, sometimes, the best is far more subtle by relative comparison.
There’s an HBO series in the works for The Last of Us, so those of you who have not gotten their fill of Joel and Ellie’s dark adventure across the post-apocalyptic United States are going to be able to immerse themselves once more (hopefully sometime in 2022).
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS
Admit it: you’ve paused a game and saved it just before a big point in the story to close out, reload, and try to get things right. Who hasn’t? It’s one of the things that led to the whole prevalence of hard-to-save roguelike games. But what about a game where going back and changing your decisions was built in?
In Life is Strange, going back in time to make better choices is the key gameplay conceit. As the main character, Max, you discover the impossible: you can rewind time and alter the world in powerful and complex ways. As you traverse the town of Arcadia and explore the difficulties inherent in time travel, you also become increasingly connected to the other characters (especially Max’s best friend Cloe), and the choices you make alter the world around you. It’s another great game, like Mass Effect or Telltale’s The Walking Dead that rewards players who take the time to consider their actions by fundamentally changing the way the other characters, and the world, evolve around them.
Developer: Campo Santo
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, Windows, Mac, and Linux
One cure for loneliness is the solitude of nature, or so Henry, the protagonist of Firewatch seems to believe. Setting off into the Wyoming wilderness, he is in search of the chance to rest his weary heart and figure himself out among the expansive and empty vistas of the great Wyoming mountain range. Only those vistas are not as empty as they first appear. There is a mystery at the core of Firewatch, a dark and paranoia-inducing exploration of fear and the consequences of our decisions.
The game’s poignant story is backed by gorgeous stylized visuals and a wonderful ambient audio track that really makes you feel immersed in the 1980's wilderness. You can almost feel the cool dew of the early morning on your face. There’s subtle humor, too, and the flow of dialog between Henry and his supervisor Delilah (heard over a walkie-talkie) brings an intimacy to the setting that really drives the energy of the game forward.
There’s more interaction here than with Gone Home, so while there are some walking simulator vibes at play, the way the narrative is driven through the dialog, the present sense of mystery, and the type of landscape being explored all conspire to create a game that feels far more immersive than others in this genre.
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox 360, and Windows.
Writing has its pressures and, for famous pop-fic writer Alan Wake, those pressures have become too much and he decides to escape them by turning to the small town of Bright Falls and the promise of a relaxing vacation. Then things get strange. After his wife vanishes, Alan finds himself at the center of a paranormal mystery rife with an atmosphere of desolate dread.
Growing up on the X-Files made me a lifelong fan of the supernatural TV series, which is absolutely what Alan Wake is attempting to emulate, even going so far as to explore the game’s plot through several episodes (structured like the episodes in a TV series). Splitting up the night/day aspect of the game is a great storytelling touch that pulls the narrative along and maintains the tension. Granted, the whole game feels a bit like a TV show — loose ends in the story will continue to hang in the wind, and the thrill factor is often clearly the thing being most intensely concentrated on. I highly recommend only playing with the expansions, as the extra episodes help fill out the story and wrap things up in a far more satisfying way.
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Through five acts, Kentucky Route Zero took seven years to develop in full, and it captured a legion of dedicated fans along the way who found themselves caught in the delightful gravity of this deep and supremely engaging little game, with its rich and multi-faceted story. While other adventure games focus on collecting items and solving puzzles, it’s the dialog choices in Kentucky that makes the game so unforgettable. The art style, too, is fabulous, providing a surrealist expanse as haunting and beautiful as any ever explored in this medium.
An interesting point about Kentucky Route Zero is that, due to the length of time in between its episodes being developed and released, it presents a fascinating example of narrative development, not merely within the story itself (which, with its constantly deepening and multi-perspective approach to dialog exploration, is amazing), but within the construction of its story. The developers clearly evolved their approach to storytelling as time went on, taking more nuanced approaches to the structure of the writing and allowing for more complexity than simple point-and-click in the way that story is delivered to a player. I’d say stick with this one for a couple of episodes-worth of material and you’ll find yourself happy you stuck around long enough to be hooked.
Platform(s): Windows, Mac, Linux, PS3, and Xbox 360
Valve’s first Portal game became an instant and unforgettable hit that spawned some of the greatest viral memes of the age and what it did, Portal 2 only manages to build upon. The gameplay is more ferociously varied, more challenging, more complex, and more delightfully funny than ever before. Given a few deliciously unique new characters whose personalities are experienced through snappy and excellent dialog, the moments between solving feverishly difficult portal puzzles are made unforgettably fun.
The over-arching story, in this case, remains true to Portal style: simple but unique for its humor and self-aware subtly, but it’s really in seeing how Wheatley and the other characters react that sells it: you want to keep playing just to see what they’ll say next. There’s an important reminder here about the role of comedy in video games, something too often overlooked or poorly done, but which, in Portal 2 is absolutely the greatest reason to play the game.
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Platform(s): PS4, Windows.
The aesthetic of Horizon did not at first thrill me: it looked a little too anime for my tastes, with giant robot animals that reminded me of the campy '90s Power Rangers series. But then I discovered the absolutely incredible soundtrack for the game and I knew I needed to play it; something in the way the music felt gave me the hunch that there was far more to Horizon than at first met my eye. Boy, was I right.
There’s plenty of the normal EXP and loot grinding in Horizon that one would expect, and, as I always do with such games, I found myself playing on lowest difficulty and high stealth for most of it. But the combat factor was minor compared to the deep lore and wonderful range of emotional expression that emerged while interacting with the world and the other characters in the world. The fact that this is fundamentally a human story might be overshadowed at first glance by the giant robots roaming the land, but it shouldn’t be, because the weight and timeliness of the tale being told is one that I wish more modern games would try to emulate in kind.
Platform(s): Xbox One, Windows
The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. That’s Half-Life 2 in a nutshell, one of the greatest action shooter games in history. Following on the heels of everything the utterly revolutionary first Half-Life created, Half-Life 2 immerses the player once more in the role of unlikely scientist-hero Gordan Freeman and the multi-layered mystery that the twists of Black Mesa are replaced by City 17.
This is solidly a game from 2004, where a graphics card with 128MB of memory seemed like a piece of advanced alien hardware itself, but the game mechanics still hold up really well. And yet, for all that the engine was excellent for its time, the story received mixed reviews from critics at the time of its release. The question is: how much do you like unanswered questions, and how many unanswered threads are you willing to endure for the sake of ambiance and tone? Half-Life 2 offers an overdose of mystery that some might find off-putting, and there is no satisfactorily comprehensive conclusion where the game falls together into a neat package. But, because of that, many players have found themselves more enthralled than ever.
What really makes it all pop, though, and the final point that gets it included on this list, is the script for character dialog. Sure, Gordan doesn’t say anything, but the emotional quality, humor, and aliveness of the other characters in the story pop out of the screen. It really showcases the power of Valve’s 2004 technology, but also displays a definite sense of understanding of what makes a game memorable: the characters you encounter while delving into the world.
Don’t forget to buy the Episode One and Episode 2 expansions for Half-Life 2 as well, as they dramatically increase the available story.
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac
It’s incredible to me that a game that is ultimately all about death can be so completely overflowing with life. Like Tim Burton’s early work, there’s a delightful childhood quality to the story of Edith Finch, managing to walk a divide between melancholy and profound that proves this game’s worth as a storytelling masterpiece for the ages.
Without bogging players down in a mire of quest-doing and puzzle-solving, the game highlights its fundamental story aspects, and the way it manages to cast even the most bitter of deaths in the light of magic is so wonderful that it’s fairly overwhelming. The family at the center of the tale are eccentric in the best ways, their quirks drawing attention to our own foibles and the innate qualities which all human beings share.
This is a quick game, something to be played in one sitting, uninterrupted, with a cup of hot tea at hand. But it’s also one of the most moving gameplay experiences you are likely to encounter, and something that absolutely must be experienced by any narrative fans.
Platform(s): Xbox (all versions), Windows
Halo can get forgotten on lists of the best video game stories, partly because the later additions to the series very often fell terribly short in the narrative department, and also because of the simplicity of the space opera tale at large. Halo revolutionized the shooter experience, but it also gave us a taste of the compelling science fiction tale destined to become one of the most famous video game franchises in history. However, while the first in the series laid the framework for something remarkable, it was Halo 2 that brought gameplay and narrative together in a blending that Bungie would never again manage to replicate as well.
The terrible working conditions that surrounded the release of Halo 2 (all too endemic to the industry) actually may have helped the game’s story succeed so well, however, as a planned third act of the game was cut due to time constraints. This left a cliffhanger experience which actually paid off quite well, building up an expectation of an even greater and more explosive confrontation yet to come. What really made the story work, however, was the clever interplay between the two character perspectives: that of Master Chief and the Arbiter. Allowing players to see inside the aggressive and zealously religious alien union known as the Covenant (and from the perspective of a hero of the Covenant) offered something delightful from a narrative perspective, and something more complex than any other major shooter game had attempted before.
Critics at the time of the game’s release, in true critic fashion, failed to appreciate the subtle brilliance of a shooter with an intricate plot and the lack of a box-office-explosive end, and it was that sort of feedback, I think, that led to the disappointing experiences of the later games’ narrative approaches, which all felt quite lackluster, same-y, and ridden with holes.
If you have yet to play Halo 2, or have not played it since its early days, I strongly recommend returning to it via the remastered edition found in the Halo: The Master Chief Collection which updates all the aging aspects of the game and makes is a truly modern delight to play.
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, and Windows
With the massive success of Netflix’s adaptation of the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher has gained widespread worldwide success beyond its original cult following in Eastern Europe. The show took the original material and mixed it heavily with the stylization and lore developed through the video games, the latest of which, Wild Hunt became an international bestseller with over 50 million copies sold.
Telling the story of the titular “witcher” Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter in an age where monster hunters are increasingly obsolete, the overarching story of the series is one of deeply gray morality, love, passion, and hope, all embroiled in a rich narrative of shattered kingdoms and violence. It is, in short, a darned good yarn. And it’s that depth of lore and ambiguity of “right” vs “wrong” choice that the games took and blended so well with their interactive medium. Taking the savvy construction of the previous titles to a whole new level, however, with its broad open-world design and sweeping narrative, Wild Hunt offers fans and newcomers alike something truly unique and potent: the sort of rich and otherworldly tale that makes it feel more like experiencing an emotional interactive theatrical production than an action-RPG game.
Developer: Square Enix.
Platforms: SNES, PSOne, Game Boy Advance, Android, and iOS.
The first of the series to take a major break from its medieval aesthetic roots, Final Fantasy VI brought us all the emotional arcs and deep storytelling that defined the series, but now within an era of steampunk. With fourteen characters, the sheer depth of character interaction and exploration here is incredible, even for a FF title.
At the time of its release, Final Fantasy VI upped the limits of what the RPG genre could offer, building the sort of story that must be considered an artistic work in its own right apart from the mechanics and graphics of the game. Indeed, a 2018 retrospective by IGN pointed out that even with the game’s outdated graphics and gameplay design, the story alone would be compelling enough to grab the attention of modern gamers who are used to more complicated story delivery systems.
For my own part, I totally agree: any game with a story as complex, fully realized, and spellbinding as the continent-spanning immersive experience encountered in FFVI, must be considered as a work of narrative art. For one thing, the limitations of the engine and the graphics forced the developers to greater lengths with their characterization, dialog, and storytelling ability to keep players engaged. If their efforts can still pay off in an age of nearly photo-realistic graphics, you know they hit upon the magic combination that transforms mere video games into art.
Developer: Kojima Productions
Platform(s): PS4, Microsoft Windows
Some games redefine a genre and some games pave the way for those other, revolutionary works. Death Stranding is firmly within the second of these two camps, managing to provide questions about the nature of what it means to engage in video gameplay, while simultaneously proving it lacks the answers to the questions that it raises.
But, while Death Stranding strands its players in a soup of slow-paced monotony and weird callbacks to '80s boss-battle mechanics, it also has one of the finest attempts at storytelling to come out of the video game genre in a long time.
With incredible acting from a cast led by Norman Reedus and an utterly breathtaking ambient world to explore, Death Stranding provides players with a multilayered narrative that would easily feel at home in any science fiction art-house epic. On its own, this story is powerful, potent, and emotional to the point of making hardcore players break down and cry; unfortunately, the gameplay itself doesn’t function so much as a vehicle for this wonderful story as an obnoxious impediment to the story. My advice is to play on the easiest settings and avoid anything that isn’t connected to the main storyline, that way you can enjoy all the emotional brilliance without quite as much soul-sucking (heh) slog.
Developer: Irrational Games
Platform(s): Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, OS X, and Linux
My personal favorite in the Bioshock saga, Bioshock Infinite is one of the cleverest games of the twenty-teens, and one of the most potent story-driven shooter games ever to hit computers and gaming systems. It’s that story, and the deep and vibrant canon of storytelling background, that makes this game so special. There’s a powerful shooter mechanic here, with lots of “range” available to blow enemies up, but it ultimately doesn’t offer up anything new in the “shoot people” genre of games.
What it does offer is a twisting storyline filled with strange and unnerving flashbacks and blips in the fabric of reality, characters who are easy to become attached to, and a climactic twist that will completely upend all of your assumptions in one mighty go.
It reminds me a bit of a classic pulp novel, but a really good one: a story told by the golden-age masters of science fiction (complete, unfortunately, with some implicit sexism). Sure, there are places where the writing falters or the themes could have been thought out a bit more carefully, but other elements, like the exploration of a creepy southern culture reliant on slavery, are even more poignant now than they were back in 2013.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platform(s): Windows, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
This is one of my absolute favorite games in the stealth-combat genre, and not simply because it honestly allows for a huge range of potential playing styles and never once makes you feel pigeon-holed into choosing the developer’s preferred option. Dishonored’s story and the setting of that story are what makes the game so special, with a vast amount of detailed world lore, a dark and twisted maze of political intrigue at the heart of the plot, and enough emotionality even in secondary plots that it really feels like a living and breathing world.
Personally, I like being able to not kill people in my video games — at least as rarely as possible — and the fact that Dishonored not only allows for that, it actively anticipates that and alters the entire storyline depending on whether or not the player chooses to murder people… is incredible. That, alone, is enough for me to recommend the game: the fact that choices matter in Dishonored cannot be overstated, especially because this is first and foremost a game of stealthy assassinations and features all the blood-spewing animations you’d expect from the genre. That they built story changes directly into that killing mechanic, then, is really smart and fun.
The story itself is not unique — there are plenty of tried and true tropes at work here. But, all those tropes manage to feel either freshly explored or delightfully savvy in their implementation. Like I’ve said elsewhere: tropes are tropes for a reason, and Dishonored respects that, using the tropes of genre and style to produce an anti-capitalist revenge tale that is absolutely worth your time.
Developer: Moon Studios
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Taking the best of what its 2015 predecessor Ori and the Blind Forest offered, Ori and the Will of the Wisps goes even farther, taking bold steps to improve upon an already charming and glorious little fantasy game. There is a constant sense of interacting with a living world in Ori, something quite remarkable considering its 2D platformer style. As you explore the tantalizing darkness of bug-infested caves or wander up the frigid snow-caked mountains, the landscape feels immersive and vast, and there’s a sense of living depth that is simply delightful to behold.
The way that the world is built up and interacted with through the gameplay is all in service of an incredible light-vs-dark tale, where darkness and light are mingled in a very real, poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking way.
Platform(s): Xbox, Microsoft Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
There have been a lot of Star Wars games… like, a lot of them. Since the Disney acquisition of LucasArts there have been fewer, granted, but still enough to provide players with a lot of content in the galaxy far, far away (and the number of games is set to rapidly increase in the years ahead). But, one thing about most of the Star Wars games has always struck me as odd: the stories are rarely any good. Even in classic personal favorites, games that I love, like the Jedi Knight series, the storylines were about on par with the average world of comic books. Maybe great in a couple of places but overall just “okay.” These were stories meant to be experienced for fun, which is all fine and dandy, but what we’re after are those games that managed to offer up something better: the sort of storyline that can stand alone.
That’s what we found in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and, aside from its sequel The Sith Lords, it’s the sort of storytelling genius that we have yet to experience since then (though, perhaps, some of BioWare’s Old Reublic MMO work comes close).
In Knights of the Old Republic players are reintroduced to the Star Wars universe four thousand years before the events of A New Hope. What’s so incredible about this is that it actually feels like Star Wars, like the original trilogy, I mean; KotOR offered players an aesthetic and story-driven experience that felt deep, engaging, silly, and brilliant in all the ways that those original films did. KotOR was, in every way, the spiritual successor of the original Star Wars.
The story, sprawling over six planets and around 50 hours of gameplay, always felt varied and exciting, and the characters encountered along the way felt incredibly dynamic for a 2003 game (or, for that matter, a game post-2020). There was a pulpy quality to the writing that felt wonderfully self-aware, backed by an impressive amount of lore that touched on all sorts of possible connections to the wider Star Wars universe of the era. This was a game where you could really feel connected to the cast of characters who you encountered along the way, and the choices you made, whether toward the dark or light side, always felt sufficiently intense to make you think twice before choosing rashly.
With the addition of a vibrant (if significantly over-zealously protective) modding community, there’s enough expanded content and fan-made graphics upgrades to keep this game playable today, and with the technological advances since 2003, it’s totally possible to play one of the mobile ports for Android or iOS as if the game had been made for those platforms. If you’ve never tried it out, today should be the day you do.
Platform(s): Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PS3.
Let’s be real, the Mass Effect series is one of the greatest space operas in the history of space opera, not merely the history of video games. It’s so darned cinematic, so darned personal, so darned sweeping in scope, that its like has never since been seen. Given that the new fully remastered version of all the Mass Effect games is now available, it’s impossible to leave it off the top of our list.
In some sense, you cannot pick one of the games and laud it above the rest, if only because the trilogy acts as a single cohesive storyline, with the choices from one game carried into the next via a clever save-game integration system. But, sort of like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the middle of the pack that packs the strongest narrative punch, even if the games before and after it were brilliant in their own ways.
In Mass Effect 2 the world of Mass Effect becomes so much broader, and the dynamic interactions between the main characters, and between Shepherd and the larger cast of NPCs, are greatly intensified from the previous game. The story presses forward with the same epic sense of danger, forward momentum, and intimacy that made Mass Effect so great but without a lot of the pitfalls that became controversial points in Mass Effect 3.
This is the strong core of the Mass Effect trilogy, the backbone for one of the best science fiction space operas since Babylon 5 (which Mass Effect has more than a few subtle nods to), and it deserves its moment in the spotlight for everything that it brought to the table; for all the depth and interactivity that it promised and delivered. Ultimately, it cannot stand apart from its siblings in the series, however, which is fine because as a whole they comprise a sweeping tale that defined what the modern RPG genre should be all about.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Platform(s): Microsoft Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch.
Hellblade made massive waves in 2018, winning a huge number of awards and leading to a potent discussion about the role of video games in exploring the nature of psychological disorders. This game feels like being thrust into a melancholy and emotionally resonant visual novel, an interactive exploration of the heroine’s journey, opening up a gateway into a world of visceral storytelling that cannot be explained but only experienced firsthand.
Telling the tale of a young woman attempting to rescue the soul of her love from a hellish afterlife world, Senua grapples with ancient mythological and psychological themes in ways that other games (especially those by big-name developers) might have been afraid to do. The point to this game is absolutely not the gameplay, not the combat or item collection, but the deeply engaging atmospheric storytelling that developer Ninja Theory clearly poured their hearts into.
Furthermore, Senua struck a chord with the wider social media community given how its deliberate exploration of mental illness, in an age where issues of mental illness are at an all-time high, offered players with and without such experiences a chance to touch a corner of life that might be unavailable to them… or work through an experience that they have personally undergone and gain from that a sense of being seen. Ninja Theory’s later partnered with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust to create the “Senua's Scholarship Fund” for mental health. Ninja Theory had spent three years working with that organization during the development of Senua to better understand the experience of psychosis, so seeing them work to bring about real-world benefits for that community using the attention created by their game is really cool.
Developer: Quantic Dream
Platform(s): PS4, Microsoft Windows
The tale of humanity creating beings in its likeness is an ancient one, with roots far deeper than those of the so-called “science fiction” genre. From its mythic ancestry, through the initial futuristic landscapes of existential melancholy that we see in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, to the brilliant explorations undertaken by Isaac Asimov, there is a powerful tradition of testing the frontiers of what it means to be “human,” and it is this tradition which Detroit: Become Human inherits and brilliantly expounds.
In this case, while not an especially “new” tale, the way it is rendered within the multi-branching epic story that Quantic Dream provides players, is truly remarkable, making this feel like the first step along the path to Star Trek’s “holodeck” dramas. Seriously, everything you do in this game, all the choices you make, all the little different paths you take, all feel visceral and flourishing with life; it’s a transformational game, one with such a high level of interactivity in terms of plot that I could hardly pull myself away.
Of course, all that depth does have some flaws, with the limitations of the game being made sharper for the possible choices elsewhere, and with the depth coming at the expense of length, with a playthrough lasting a small fraction of the time that might be spent on another more traditional RPG game. But those drawbacks are, I believe, growing pains that Quantic Dream, or other productions teams, will be continually seeking to overcome. Ultimately, this is not only one of the best science fiction games I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the best games, period.
Developer: Quantic Dream
Platform(s): PS3, PS4, Windows
If there is a singular flaw in Beyond: two Souls, it’s that there is too much story present. That, however, is ideal for the purposes of this review, because the story that it tells is truly excellent.
An earlier title than Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream’s current magnum opus, Beyond: Two Souls offers the intriguing tale of a girl with apparent supernatural abilities, a tale told from a non-linear perspective and one highly influenced by player choices during play. Well, influenced to a fair degree, anyway.
Beyond doesn’t quite reach the level of Detroit or perhaps even the Mass Effect series in terms of being able to influence the ultimate outcome, but it does live up to the idea that what the player does matters. And within the confines of some limitations, what you’re signing up for here is an interactive novel with gameplay elements, a “choose your own adventure” of high narrative quality and supported by the seriously impressive acting chops of William Defoe and Elliot Page.
The tale being told polarized some critics, largely those who seemed less comfortable with non-traditional narrative structure, but for those of us who wanted something deeper from our gaming experience than could be found in other, more traditional adventure-story games, or within the action-RPG worlds, Beyond struck gold, cementing itself as one of the best games of its era and going on to garner an impressive amount of attention for a video game (heck, it got its initial release at Sundance, after all, not merely at E3). Few games match this one for pure tonal excellence, plot development, character construction, or intense emotional fun, and it blends all that narrative excellence with action-packed gameplay that is surprising enough to be fun without distracting from the core point of the game: the story being told.